Ocean Alliance News

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #4 – I’m running out of synonyms

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

This is the fourth in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

Dear Friends,

To review:
Day 1 we had a 100-mile passage down from Juneau to our study site Frederick Sound and our port of operations Kake, the passage was tough but we were very excited to be in SE Alaska.
Day 2 the weather remained bad, blowing 15 Knots plus but we collected 2 Snot samples.
Day 3 bad weather again but we collected 5 samples.
Day 4 the weather cleared by midday, the wind and seas calmed down and we collected 8 samples.
Yesterday (day 5) we had a bit of fog in the morning with minimal wind and calm seas and we collected 15 Snot samples.
Total samples so far 30!

Our goal was a minimum of 25 samples so we are over the moon. On top of this we have seen some of the most spectacular whale behavior I have ever seen. I am now spoilt, I just can’t imagine studying whale’s from only a boat and not having and eye in the sky.

christianmiler_alaska_snotbot-5As much as I hated the bad weather it did give the team time to work out how to work together on such a small boat and it gave us a chance to shake down our routines and protocols. Also we have learnt a tremendous amount about flying over Humpback whales and whales in general. We have been making a punch list ever day of variables that we should be considering during our interpretation of the data such as, whale direction and wind direction. If the wind is blowing at 90 degrees to the whale’s passage, then you have to run parallel (downwind) of the whale to collect snot. If there is a group of whales, you always want to pick the upwind whale so that a second whale does not contaminate the sample. We are now up to about 40 variables and we are planning on writing a report for National Marine Fisheries so that others can benefit from our experiences.

We saw a lot of bubble net feeding today by individuals and groups, just spectacular. We also saw a lot of breeching and pec flapping. I even saw two whales lunge in opposite directions next to each other.

DSC04236We have three days left in Frederick Sound and then the passage back to Juneau. Tomorrow we hope to test a new drone a partner to SnotBot – a drone that we hope will give us a completely different insight into the world of whales than does SnotBot. Another piece of data for the biological jig saw puzzle.

Onwards Upwards, Fingers crossed.

All the very best.


SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #3

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

This is the third in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

We were out on the water by 7:30 am yesterday, but it was still cloudy and raining so we were a bit down. We don’t like to collect Snot in the rain because then we have to process every petri dish. The droplets of rain in the dish could be Snot so we have to process every dish which is a lot of work for us and even more for the analysis lab.

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

By 10:00 am the skies cleared the seas started to calm down and the team worked like a well-oiled machine (albeit in a very small boat). We collected 6 samples in the next 3 hours and then changed location close to Turnabout Island about 10 miles away. The first thing we saw here was a bird in distress just off the shoreline, we sent up a drone and realized that it was not in distress but it was a bald eagle swimming shore with a fish so big that it could not fly. It swam amazingly well and reached the shore successfully (with dinner).

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

The water around us seemed to be boiling with life and soon 4 whales turned up and were swimming less than one body length from the shoreline side lunging. The footage we recorded is absolutely spectacular and we collected 2 more samples.

Shore LungeThe day was saved by the fact we could charge our flight batteries all day form the boat batteries. The previous day our inverted failed and we had a new one flown in (the same day) from Juneau (for $11) from Alaska Industrial Hardware & Alaska Seaplanes. Only in Alaska!!

We had a chance to have 2 drone’s in the air, one recording the other collecting Snot. Our Inspire 1 drone’s worked flawlessly.

We finally pulled into the dock last night at 8:00 pm exhausted but elated with a total of 15 samples, stunning video footage of whale behavior and memories that will last a life time.

Foggy this morning – but we are sure that it will soon burn off so we are heading out.

All the very best.


SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #2

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

This is the second in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

Dear Friends,

Well we are still fighting the weather, 15 to 20 knots of wind and pretty constant rain. I think that SnotBot excels in wind speeds of up to 15 knots, above that the wind lays the whale blows flat and launch and recovery become more of a challenge.

That said we can’t just sit in the hotel, so we went out into Frederick Sound today. The low clouds and fog on the mountains was amazing to see along with a lot of whales that we could not get to. At times we were bucking 3 ft seas in our small boat which made working impossible so we hugged the shoreline until we found some whales in a semi sheltered bay. Wind speeds were still peaking at over 15 knots but the waters were calmer. The whale gods then rewarded our persistence with 2 Snot Samples in what can only be described as extreme conditions. Typically, SnotBot hovers approx 12 feet above a whale’s blowhole to catch the blow. Because of the strong winds we had to fly SnotBot downwind of the whale that we were trying to collect Snot from. In the first two attached photos I was flying backwards downwind waiting for the whale to surface upwind of me and exhale. Many practice flights in my back yard paid off today. All of my photos are screen grabs from the SnotBot Inspire 1- 4K camera, I have also attached a photo from our cameraman extraordinaire Christian Miller. The side lunge 3 photo and Christian’s photo are from the second day before the weather deteriorated.

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

Downwind Snot Collection 2

We are working out of the town of Kake, a location that you can only get to by boat or plane. The town has a special meaning to my family because (as many of you know) this is where I adopted a dog that was a great companion for 16 years. Clearly Keiku (the dog) had Kake’s soul, the people we have met here have been amazing, as we walked to the grocery store the other day (there are no restaurants or bars) every person who drove or walked by said hello or waved. Kake First Nation is letting us tie up our boat right next to an old cannery that was shut down years ago and fell into disrepair. Kake First Nation are now restoring the old buildings which is great to see, they need a lot of work, like some other buildings I know.

KeikuLast but not least we could not be better looked after than we are by our hosts at the Kake Kwaan Lodge. We certainly hit the jackpot with the right location to work out of, now we just need a bit more of that elusive Alaska summer.

Tomorrow the weather is meant to be getting better, Ill keep you posted.

All the very best.


Thank You for a Successful Gloucester Harbor Cruise! – by Andy Rogan, OA Science Manager

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

On Tuesday the 26th July we hosted our Gloucester Harbour Cruise (which turned into a sunset whale watch!). We are thrilled to announce that it was an enormous success, raising almost $4,000 to support Ocean Alliance and our activities protecting whales & their ocean environment.

With all of the donated food and great weather we knew that we were in store for a great evening, but we were over the moon when our partners (and incredibly gracious hosts), Seven Seas Whale watch, told us that the humpback whales on Stellwagen bank were close enough to shore to access in the time we had available. Our evening on the Privateer IV was thus off to a great start when it turned from a tour of the harbor into a whale watch with our president and founder Dr. Roger Payne!

IMG_0005-Tasia Blough

Photo by Tasia Blough


As we went out to sea, Roger and CEO Iain Kerr talked about our work, our hopes and ambitions for the oceans and our home at the Gloucester Paint Manufactory. The stars of the show were the whales which make Stellwagen Bank their summer home. During one whale dive Roger talked about a similar night he had at sea over 40 years ago when he first heard whale songs.

We reached the whales half an hour before sunset and were treated to a stunningly beautiful display. Lots of fluking into the sunset (to the delight of all with a camera!) and surfacing right next to the vessel thrilled all on-board, including Roger!

Photo by Alex Paradis

Photo by Alex Paradis

IMG_1083-2As we headed back to Gloucester after watching the sun dip beneath the horizon (with a glimpse of a green flash) the silent auction and the raffle got in to full gear, and after a few more tales from Iain and Roger, including his poetic description of ‘The Borneo Cat Drop’, the raffle prize winners were announced.

A great time was had by all and it was fantastic being able to connect with so many Gloucester and Cape Ann locals: a tremendous success all round and we were thrilled to raise $4,000 to support our research & restoration activities! So great a success was it, that we are hoping to make it an annual event!

Enormous thanks are due to a lot of great friends. First and foremost, to Seven Seas Whale Watch, whose vessel the Privateer IV and crew kept everyone safe and happy, and to their captain Jay, whose instinctive understanding of Humpback whales got us so many wonderful encounters. Also to the many local groups that kindly donated food and drink to the cruise including: Cape Ann Brewery, Stop & Shop, the Common Crow, Maritime Gloucester, Passports Restaurant, Latitude 43, Ryan & Wood Distillery, Cape Ann Coffee, the Studio Restaurant and Sugar Magnolias. Thank You so much for your generosity: you made this night the success it was!

And finally to the Ocean Alliance staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly during the whole planning phase and during the evening itself: and in particular to Rebecca Graham, the orchestra conductor, and our board member Linde Mac.



UAS Vision Interview with Iain Kerr

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

This interview with Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr originally appeared on the UAS Vision website, an independent global forum for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems community.

We wanted to find out more about the team behind Drone World Expo – what makes them tick, what motivates them and what are the secrets behind the success of the event. We will be interviewing several of the Advisory Board members over the coming months. We start with Dr. Iain Kerr, the CEO of the Ocean Alliance, an organization recognised as an international leader in whale research and ocean conservation since its founding by renowned scientist Dr. Roger Payne in 1970. Iain has pioneered research using UAVs  to collect data from whales and the ocean environment.

  1. What was the trigger for your move to the USA? Was Ocean Alliance your first employer?

I first came over to the USA looking for adventure, I had just finished four years at university I wanted to go and explore the world, my sister had friends in Miami and the Bahamas so that seemed like the best place to go. A year or so later I started a small company in Miami called CDI hovercraft.  These were small light weight hovercraft that were the ultimate all terrain vehicles, we sold some to rice growers in the Mississippi, gold miners in Brazil and adventurers or early adopters looking for a new type of transportation.  I still see these hovercraft as a solution looking for a problem.  I have always liked to tinker with machines.  After CDI Hovercraft I worked as a yacht delivery captain for a few years but my first formal job was with Ocean Alliance when I captained their research vessel Siben to the Galapagos in the 1980’s.

  1. What was your first encounter with a drone ?

I studied engineering at the University of London (part of a teacher training course) I don’t know why but I have always had a great fascination with Helicopters, so I wanted to build a gyrocopter for a final design/build project at University. Luckily my dad persuaded me to build a Hovercraft (see photo below – less height to fall if something goes wrong) hence the Hovercraft company in Miami.

Hovercraft Shoreditch
I did not do much airborne tech work for the next decade that I spent at sea but when I came ashore I instantly started back up with gas powered RC helicopters. I did not like the constant engine issues, exhaust and fuel problems and my landlord did not like the dead spots all over the lawn.  About another decade later when battery powered helicopters and planes came onto the scene I leapt back into the field with both feet.

  1. What do you see as being the advantage(s) of using drones for conservation?

I could spend all day answering this question – I believe that drones for conservation and research are akin to the invention of the microscope for cellular biology.  They are opening up a whole new world for us to explore.  They are affordable, quite, adaptable, reliable and scalable.  I was recently hovering above a blue whale, the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet.

Blue body short
Through FPV [First-Person View] I was just sitting 20 feet above this remarkable animal watching, its movement, its musculature, its respiration rate, its patterning and then a few minutes later I had, DNA, Microbiomes and who knows what else from its snot and it never even knew that I was there.  If we truly want to understand what effects humanity is having on wildlife we need to study them in a non invasive manner (see the observer effect) – todays drones are the ultimate realization of non invasive research. I also believe we are only just scratching the surface of the potential for these machines.

  1. Which airframes did you select for your most recent expeditions to the Sea of Cortez and Alaska and why ?

When we first started the SnotBot program we built prototypes with our friends at Olin College of Engineering, we soon realized that companies like DJI were spending millions on research and development and it would be easier for us to modify their product than create a whole new product. When you spend a lot of money and time getting a team on location, you want a drone that you can rely on and DJI had that in spades. We also really liked the interface that the DJI products have with the iPad or iPhone and the flight log App. Using a drone to collect whale blows is a bit counterintuitive, the whales are blowing up but the drones are blowing down.

Inspire 1 SnotBot[2]
In Mexico we wanted to explore two avenues of Snot collection, the first was to use a number of different Snot collection devices on a pole (trying to get out of the downwash) and the second was to use the drone rotor circulation or vortex’s to collect snot for us, taking advantage of the prop wash as against fighting it.  The DJI Phantom 4 was perfect for attaching poles and different payloads.  The thin body of the DJI Inspire 1 (as against the typical round body) meant that we could put Petri Dishes on the top of the Inspire and collect snot as it was sucked in by the blades and pushed down along the thin body (see photo).  We chose wisely, this method was very successful.

5. There is now a wide variety of exhibitions and conferences about UAS in the USA.  Why did you choose to support Drone World Expo (

I started by looking at their advisory board, I really liked the fact that they had such a diverse collection of people, from industry, legislation, investment, science and innovation.  The skills experience and expertise that this group bring to the table is quite remarkable.  I also like the fact that this conference represents a true cross section of the industry, I see other conferences that are more focused on one aspect or another but in their own words:  “The DWE conference program will provide a road map for the application and deployment of drone solutions and key insights for participants into how to measure and maximize on the value drones can add to commercial businesses”.

“Aerial and Underwater Drones” by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

It was 46 years ago that I first saw right whales off Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia and started the study of their behavior that Ocean Alliance has continued without a break to this day (making ours the longest continuous study of a whale species based on known individuals). In that first year I watched the right whales from a high cliff and when they came beneath it could see through the water exactly what they were doing and in perfect detail. By filming the patterns of white markings (callosities) on their heads, I could also tell who they were. However, because they were almost always on the move the perfect views from above never lasted more than a few minutes. We could run along the rim of the cliff for a while, looking down at the whale but it was both exhausting and dangerous as any misstep would plunge you headfirst onto the rocks, 150 feet below.

By accurately plotting their positions with surveyors’ theodolytes we later found that at Penìnsula Valdès right whales prefer to be in 5 meters of water—not 4½ meters or 5½ meters but 5 meters of water. They stick to that depth tenaciously in our study area in Golfo San José. In fact, I have never seen a more sharply tuned behavioral preference for water depth in any whale species. It was clear that if you could observe from overhead the whales could not get out of your sight because of their strong preference for water that is only 5 meters deep—a depth through which you can see the whale’s entire body.

For all those reasons, from year one I longed to observe right whales from the air. Sure sure, underwater observations were possible but whenever you approach closely, the whales either leave at once or stop whatever they are doing and come over to examine you closely—often, they try to intimidate or dominate you as well. It is all very impressive but you see nothing of the whale’s normal behavior which is why you are there in the first place. Because it was so clear from the start that aerial observations would enable us to make huge advances in understanding right whale behavior, we tried in that first year to find a helicopter we could afford to charter from which we could observe the whales’. But neither then nor later could we find one at a charter price we could afford. Years later when we were cooperating in the filming of an Imax film, we did finally have the chance to keep a chartered helicopter at whale camp for 10 days. The views we got from it were great but we had to observe from much further away, since helicopters disturb right whales much more than the fixed-wing planes we were used to.

Parasail and baloon

Roger and Iain’s early attempts to observe whales from above in 1987, with a parasail and balloon.

For years I simply yearned to have a model aircraft that could carry a TV camera. I was sure it would be able to get closer without disturbing the whales and that would give us better results. However, none of us had the skills to operate such a machine and it was clear that learning to do so and keeping that skill honed would be a full time occupation—hard to accomplish since there is a long roster of other things that demand one’s full attention during our all-too-short field seasons.

As time passed affordable drones finally began to appear. In 2006 I had the luck of meeting MIT Professor Daniela Rus, two of whose former students had developed a very successful octocopter called the Falcon. We took it and them to Argentina in 2008 and tried it out as a tool for observing right whales. The results were stunning. First off, as long as we kept the downdraft clear of the the whales they simply ignored the drone. Here’s an example of what you can see from a small drone when above a right whale:


At the same time Iain approached Professor Andrew Bennett at Olin College of Engineering and they began building what they dubbed the SnotBot, (one of my least favorite names but a great machine that collects blow samples from right whales, subsequent analyses of which enable you to learn about the health and reproductive state of the whale). Iain is currently off doing this work on the second of three expeditions that Ocean Alliance funded through Kickstarter.

While all of this explosive development was going on Iain was spending evenings and weekends learning how to fly drones in his back yard and the result of that effort made it clear that the dream of studying behavior of whales with drones is now a reality.

Allow me to go out on a limb and predict (in the spirit of Moore’s law) a trend in the amount of information one can get by using drones: I predict that the number of papers on whale behavior based on drones will roughly double every three to five years—thereby tempting one to conclude that if you want to learn about whales, don’t waste your time on, or in, the water, get up in the air.

However, everyone who does accept the challenge of designing drones that can operate in the far-more-difficult world of underwater observations will find that the amount of data they can get on whales will increase even faster. I suspect that in a few more years the explosion of papers based on underwater drones will be increasing at twice the rate of papers based on aerial drones.

I have often felt that by great good fortune I was born at a time ideal for learning more about whales. However, I now feel that an understanding of the world of whales is only in its very earliest, most primitive beginning phase and that its full fruition will come as a result of both aerial and underwater drones—rather than from observations by divers or from shipboard.

Blue body 2


Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

“Art of the Sea and Science,” a collaboration of North Shore Arts Association and Ocean Alliance

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

WHAT: “Art of the Sea and Science”
EVENTS: Art exhibition, silent auction, lectures and performance series
WHEN: June 17th through July 30th
WHERE: North Shore Arts Association, 11 Pirates Lane, Gloucester, MA 01930
ADMISSION: Open free to the public with suggested donation of $5 for lectures  and performance series
CONTACT INFO: NSAA at 978.283.1857 or

  • June 17-July 30 “Art of the Sea and Science” exhibition
  • June 17-July 30 Original artwork on Paint Factory Slates silent auction
  • June 26 (12:30-1:30) “Why Whales” lecture with Dr. Iain Kerr
  • June 26 (2-4pm) Reception open free to the general public
  • July 7 (7pm) “Sea Change-Reversing the Tide” performance with Dr. Roger Payne and Lisa Harrow (noted New Zealand actress)
  • July 23 (3pm) “The Intersection of Marine Science, Conservation, Activism and Art” lecture with Karen Ristuben

“From the Harbor” by Sharon Bahosh

American writer, artist and philosopher E. Hubbard said “Art is not a thing, it is a way.” The historic North Shore Arts Association of Gloucester celebrating its 94th year, reflects this philosophy with its “Art in Action – Connecting Communities” focus this season, by hosting a groundbreaking collaboration with Gloucester’s marine conservation/research group Ocean Alliance, now headquartered in Gloucester’s iconic Paint Factory, and historic Rocky Neck Art Colony.

Supporting the Ocean Alliance mission to protect and preserve our oceans and marine life and North Shore Arts Association and Rocky Neck Art Colony’s mission of supporting the arts, an “Art Exhibition of the Sea and Science” will be on display June 17 through July 30 in the galleries of NSAA. Although works of all genres will be on display, the main focus will be works depicting the sea and Cape Ann.

A very unique component of the exhibition will be a show and silent auction of works painted on old roofing slates removed from the historic Paint Factory building. These historic slates donated to NSAA by non-profit Ocean Alliance provide the substrate used by NSAA Artist Members to create original paintings, each approximately 12″x24″ depicting a myriad images. Bids for the silent auction may be placed June 17 through July 30 by visiting or contacting NSAA. One hundred per cent of silent auction proceeds will go to fund the ongoing restoration of the NSAA’s gallery building and Ocean Alliance’s Paint Factory headquarters.

Slate_Demeter, Anne_WhaleandCalf

“Whale and Calf” by Anne Demeter

The collaboration also offers an extraordinary series of Ocean Alliance and Rocky Neck Art Colony lectures and performances. This special programing was made possible through partial funding by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The first of the series will be marine conservation/research group Ocean Alliance presenting a lecture “Why Whales?” by CEO Dr. Iain Kerr on Sunday, June 26th, 12:30-1:30pm followed by a reception, open free to the public 2-4pm. A dynamic performance/poetry reading, “Sea Change: Reversing the Tide” will be presented by President of Ocean Alliance Dr. Roger Payne – whose profound discovery of whale songs has been a major force in their protection – and his wife, noted New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow on Thursday, July 7th at 7pm. Rocky Neck Art Colony President and arts and marine conservation advocate Karen Ristuben will present a lecture “Intersection of Marine Science, Conservation, Activism and Art on Saturday, July 23rd 3pm. All lectures and performances are free with a suggested donation of $5.

To learn more about these three iconic non-profits visit, and

About the Lecturers and Performers

– Dr. Roger Payne, Ocean Alliance President and Founder

Dr. Roger Payne states, “I am so disappointed that the Arts and Sciences are taught separately – both the Arts and the Sciences lose. They should be co-mingled.” Ocean scientist Payne embodies the best of the Arts and Sciences functioning together to do something probably neither could have done separately.

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr shares, “Because Dr. Payne is a musician. . . because he is an artist/scientist, his training allowed him to identify, and make the most profound discovery about humpback whales. That whales sing songs!” Prior to his discovery in 1967, along with Scott McVay, whale sounds were a mystery. Payne knew, however, that “a song is a rhythmically repeated collection of notes” and was able, because of his music training, to identify the particular songs of individual whales that he later confirmed can be heard over thousands of miles of ocean.

Having worked aboard the sloop “Clearwater” in support of Pete Seeger’s efforts to clean up the Hudson River in New York, Payne is considered a pioneer in his field. In the hope of sharing the work of artists/scientists, recordings of whale songs were placed aboard American Satellites Voyager I and II. Drs. Payne and Kerr have also stimulated interest in conserving our oceans and marine life by testifying before congress and presenting before the United Nations.

 About SEACHANGE: Reversing the Tide (performed by Dr. Roger Payne and his wife, noted New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow

What is the most consequential contribution of science in the past 100 years? Is it E=mc2, the structure of DNA, decoding the human genome, plate tectonics, the computer revolution, putting a man on the moon, the development of nuclear weapons? None of those directly affects the lives of every human being on earth—most indigenous peoples are simply unaware of all of them. However, respect for the hundreds of species that make the world habitable for us, and with which we interdepend is utterly consequential. Indigenous people were first to guess at it but scientific discovery during the past 50 years has proved it. And the consequence is that discovery is—if we ignore the destruction of the wild world until it can no longer keep the world habitable, our species will not survive.

The evidence for and the consequences of this broad claim are explored in Seachange: Reversing the Tide. In this hour long presentation Roger Payne and his wife, actress Lisa Harrow combine the knowledge of science with the wisdom of poetry to argue compellingly that man is not the overseer of Life on earth but an integral part of Life’s complex web and conclude that the most consequential scientific discovery of the past 100 years is the realization that our species’ survival requires that we attend not just to our own wellbeing but to the wellbeing of the entire web of Life—nothing else we can ever do will be nearly as consequential as understanding that point. The audience emerges with a clear understanding of humanity’s role in the natural world and of the urgency of our need to start living sustainably.

Since 2004, Roger and Lisa have presented SeaChange: Reversing the Tide to audiences in universities, film festivals, schools, churches, conferences, libraries and other public spaces,  off-Broadway, the UN, and in people’s living rooms, throughout the US, as well as in New Zealand and the UK.

Currently, a team of New Zealand/Canadian documentary makers are raising the funds from international sources to make a film of the piece, which they are calling Pale Blue Dot after Carl Sagan’s book, an extract from which are the last words of SeaChange.

“SeaChange moves its viewers. The strength of its ecological convictions derives from well-marshalled facts of the reality of our despoilment of the planet, and the emotional impact of the poetry the piece uses. Most importantly, Harrow and Payne turn away from despair, to what is to be done.” Roald Hoffman, Nobel laureate, chemist and writer

“Thank you, both of you, for that haunting and lovely stage piece. You had me thrumming all the way home.”

– Lawrence Weschler, Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU

Dr. Iain Kerr, CEO Ocean Alliance

“I think of our planet as Planet Ocean, not Planet Earth because almost three quarters of the planet is ocean.” A self described adventurer who loves ocean science, Kerr was granted a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Southern Maine in honor of his 20 years of ocean research in over 21 countries.

On a trip out of Gloucester harbor in 1993 on a whale watch boat he saw the Paint Factory. Recognizing that such an iconic building, with its long maritime history, might capture the hearts and minds of people thereby stimulating their interest and involvement in ocean and whale conservation, he realized it would be a valuable place to headquarter Ocean Alliance.  As a result, the organization contacted the Annenberg Foundation which ultimately provided all the funds necessary to purchase the Paint Factory.  Kerr emphasizes that, since the building is mortgage free, all donations go to the ongoing restoration of the Paint Factory buildings.

The OA organization is a pioneer in developing benign research tools for studying our oceans, the most recent iteration being drones – which they have dubbed “Snotbots” – which gather specimens from the spray spouted through the blow holes of whales. Award winning actor Patrick Stewart has long been a friend to Ocean Alliance and was instrumental in garnering funds for the “Snotbot” research program. This research method is hailed for its non-invasive approach to studying the health of whale populations.

When asked what is meant by “Alliance” in the OA title, Kerr said it “reflects the idea that, along with collaboration from many other scientific organizations, all of humanity needs to be allied to preserve our oceans.”

Finding Gloucester reminiscent of the small fishing village in South West England where he grew up, Kerr and his wife chose to make their home East Gloucester.


“FV Ocean Reporter” by Jude Abbe

Karen Ristuben, Artist and Marine Conservation Advocate

After a conversation in 2009 with Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, about the challenges of preserving our oceans, Ms. Ristuben became actively involved using her artistic energies to build awareness about marine conservation. Fascinated with the qualities of reflectivity and transparency, she adopted working in glass as her artistic medium.

Then, looking out at the ocean from her Gloucester home she “realized how reflective and transparent” the water is. Also she began noticing the accumulation of plastics on the sand in front of her house. Inspired to take action, Ristuben developed a dynamic performance/lecture using the arts – music, photography and her own videos – creating an art piece as a vehicle to communicate information about the toxic effects of plastics pollution on our oceans. She states, “If there’s something in the world that needs attention – if you present it within an aesthetic framework – it becomes compelling, and they will be engaged and more likely to learn and become an agent for change.  Without an aesthetic element the offering is two dimensional.

Presenting a performance translates the issues through artistic media which then asks a viewer to be a part of it, to experience it, and be touched by it – which then leads to audiences to inquire – what can I do?

Ristuben suggests that people get involved through something that they know and care about that surrounds them. She was surrounded by the sea.  She says, “One can be most effective when talking about something from your own perspective. It allows others to do the same. It gives permission to bring your own life into your art.”

A longtime resident of Rocky Neck and current Rocky Neck Art Colony President, Ristuben sees new excitement and possibilities for forming new working partnerships, especially under the banner of the Cultural Districts, between local arts and scientific communities on Cape Ann.


“Cod” by Phyllis Bezanson

Today is World Oceans Day by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Back in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—UNCED), Canada proposed that June 8th be celebrated around the world, in perpetuity, as World Oceans Day, so that humanity could honor and celebrate the ocean and become more aware of the need to conserve ocean life.

World Oceans Day has been celebrated every year since the Rio Earth Summit, and Starting in 2003 the worldwide events have been coordinated by the World Ocean Network, which late in 2008 persuaded the UN to officially recognize World Oceans Day. Ever since, June 8th has featured ever greater numbers of celebrants, celebrations and events.

Each year World Oceans Day has had a different theme. This year it is: “Healthy oceans healthy planet.” That’s a good theme, given that if the oceans die we won’t survive, because the ocean and the life within it perform so many crucial services that keep the planet livable for us. So even if you live in central Kansas, don’t like seafood, have never seen the ocean, and think that it has no relevance to your life, you should know that it is the ocean that keeps Kansas and the rest of the US livable. As the Secretary General of the UN said on that first World Oceans Day after the UN had recognized it: “Safe, healthy and productive seas and oceans are integral to human well-being, economic security and sustainable development.”

An easier way to make the same point is to say: If the oceans die, we die.

The reason for such a drastic claim is that ocean plants provide half to two thirds of the oxygen we breathe. You may think you could get along fine with half to one third of the oxygen you’re used to; after all, you once climbed that mountain and it was almost 10,000 feet high, and you did OK. You didn’t need oxygen. So how bad could it be to have to get used to breathing air with a third as much oxygen as we’re used to? You and I could get used to it. But oops, it’s the equivalent of being on top of a mountain 100 meters higher than Mt. Everest.

“But,” I hear you say, “People have summited Everest without oxygen.”

Yes, they have, but they didn’t stay on the summit very long.

Given the suite of major problems with which we humans have burdened the ocean:

  • Acidification that kills shellfish and corals,
  • The aquarium trade threatening coral reef species,
  •  The collapse of albatross populations from longline fishing,
  • Noise pollution from ships’ traffic and seismic profiling for petroleum,
  • Oil spills,
  • Offshore drilling in ever-deeper waters,
  • Marine pollution,
  • Gyres of microplastics,
  • Macroplastic trash and tar balls on beaches,
  • Mariculture and its many associated problems,
  • Global and seawater warming that reshapes ecosystems (particularly in polar seas),
  • Unregulated fishing,
  • Unreported fishing,
  • Over-exploitation and extinction of species,
  • Destructive fishing practices like driftnets, trawling, dynamiting for fish on coral reefs,
  • Invasive alien species,
  • Sea-level canals,
  • Etc.

Could we not afford to give our attention to such problems for more than one day a year? Or do we think these problems are not serious enough to warrant more of our attention, and that in one day each year we will become interested enough to solve them before it’s too late?

Or is it just that we like grandstanding, with efforts that cannot possibly solve a problem but that make us feel as though we are making a difference, even when the difference we are making is insignificant?

I think that events like Earth Day and World Oceans Day do make a significant difference but only if we open our calendars or our wallets and contribute enough time or money to make us confident that what we are doing has a chance of making a difference. That is my challenge: that you judge the effectiveness of your efforts today and if you find that you could have done more… do it.

Roger Payne

“Data: More or Less?” by OA Science Manager Andy Rogan

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Perception of our jobs, as marine biologists, varies enormously and is almost always fairly wide of the mark. The, sadly fairly inaccurate, vision tends to be some variation of endless weeks spent cruising over flat-calm and crystal clear deep blue oceans, interacting daily with a myriad of charismatic ocean life, hair going lighter and skin going darker under an infinitely azure and cloudless sky.

These days, the reality is that less and less time is being spent in the field collecting data. Field work can be incredibly expensive, and more time on the ocean means less time in the office fund-raising. Nowadays there are hundreds of groups collecting data: from big oceanographic institutions such as Woods Hole & SCRIPSS, universities and other academic groups, government organizations such as NOAA and non-profits such as Ocean Alliance. This is of course a wonderful thing. Competition inevitably leads to a more efficient, productive industry. Yet, for the most part, we’re competing for the same resources: more hands being put in the same pots for smaller sums of money.

What this means is that when the time for data collection comes along we need to take full advantage. This puts more pressure on us to collect all the data required in that short period of time, and brings to the fore a familiar question in the scientific world. Data: more or less? Collect too little and you could miss out on crucial information, a seemingly innocuous data point which forms the vital piece of the puzzle. Collect too much, and every extra piece of information becomes more time-consuming, more complex and leaves more room for error (and if you are too busy with your head down recording information, you risk not even seeing the whales in the first place!).

One of the major advantages of SnotBot is that it allows us to collect a high number of samples: a good sample size. Small sample sizes are major bottleneck to most data collection techniques which involve collecting physical, biological samples from large whales. SnotBot changes this, by allowing the researcher to race over to a whale, collect a sample/multiple samples from the same whale, race back to the research vessel, wait for the sample to be removed and appropriately stored before flying off to the next whale and repeating the process. Of course, if I had my head down recording every single variable of each flight, this would considerably slow the process. So where does the balance lie?


This was a conundrum we had to figure out, to decide what was important and what wasn’t. With well-established measures of data collection, many scientists live by the expression, ‘less is more’. Collect only the vital pieces of information, making for a more efficient and more easily analysed data set with far less room for error. SnotBot is not a well-established measure of data collection. Indeed much of the value of these early expeditions is about testing different drones and collection devices in an effort to determine the most effective and practical ways of collecting as much exhaled breath condensate, or ‘blow’, as possible. As we take these first steps into the world of SnotBot, we don’t know what the most important factors will be in shaping whether or not we get a sample and how large that sample will be. As we look to establish SnotBot as a mainstay of marine mammal research, it is imperative that we collect as much data as possible. In 5 years’ time we don’t want to look back and say, ‘if only we had collected this piece of information or that on every SnotBot flight’. We will be able to look back at mountains of data and determine what the most important factors really are. Then, and only then, will we be able to look up a little more often and get to enjoy the experience of being in the company of whales.

Having said that, it might be a stretch to say that we didn’t have many good encounters with whales…


SnotBot Sea of Cortez Blog #1 from John Graham

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

OK, so stop me if you heard this one….

A German, two Brits, and a Yank are in a small wooden Panga boat off the coast of the Baja Peninsula using a drone to collect whale snot….

Doesn’t sound familiar? Well why should it? This one was written just weeks ago, but in the making for several years. Although this opening screams for a side-splitting punch line, I have none, for this is no joke. After reading this, you may want to store it away under the category of “You were doing what?” as part of the Bizarro Files.

This blog is just Part One of a series in which I intend to take you on a journey as seen through my progressive-corrective lenses. All of us who participated in this expedition were given the task of writing down their own individual experience. I’m the tech guy/ engineer on this mission, but my goal in writing these blogs will be to “focus” more on the trek with smatterings of geeky, techie stuff sprinkled in. I’ll try to keep it fresh and not to be too redundant of past articles.
The Ocean Alliance SnotBot crew consists of what is fondly referred to by its fearless leader as the A-Team. Not unlike the popular ‘80s television series, the group consists of characters in their own right; Iain Kerr (group leader and drone pilot), Andy Rogan (scientific researcher), Christian Miller (photographer/ documentarian), and me, John Graham (engineering tech). The mission is to perfect the technique in which we collect data rich, liquid exhalation, also known as “snot”, from our cetacean subjects. Spoiler Alert…….. It was a resounding success!! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Following up our “blow-catching” drone debut last September in Patagonia, Act 2 finds our ragtag team in the Sea of Cortez, and for those of you who are geographically challenged, such as me, that is off the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Our gear consisted of 16 very heavy and oversized waterproof shipping containers, also known as Pelican cases, and personal backpacks. The night before our departure, my wife Rebecca was pulled into the madness that was my packing process. I stood on the bathroom scale, straining to hold the over-stuffed equipment trunks in my hands, and due to my obstructed view, Rebecca recorded the results. I than subtracted my own weight to get the final poundage of the gear. 50 pounds is the cut-off for check-ins without incurring a huge surcharge. It was the first and only time in my life that I wish I weighed more, because in my mind, the more I weighed, the less the bags weighed. This was my feeble attempt to get the luggage to be within the TSA limits. All this research gear was necessary because you never know what you’ll encounter while doing research in remote locations. Small hand tools, check. Battery powered tools, check. Panty hose, check. Wait…What? (I’ll explain later.) We started our journey by leaving from Logan Airport in Boston and landing in Los Cabos San Lucas, you know, the place where the Love Boat would “set a course for adventure”. And indeed it was truly to be an adventure. After a brief overnight stay and having the Mexican Customs Department graciously lighten our load of Pesos as “payment” for allowing us to bring our plethora of gear into their country, we headed out on a 10 hour road trip.

Desert drive

Desert drive

The vistas were ever-changing with diverse terrain ranging from deserts replete with huge prickly cacti standing like silent sentinels strewn across the landscape; to its counterpart, the oases, with fields of lush green farmland and small ponds used for irrigating the crops. This is followed by mountainous roads so windy that the famous “crookedest street in the world”, Lombard Street in San Francisco, should hand over its crown and admit defeat. I would consider it one of the most beautifully diverse drives I have ever taken. Apart from the confusing and dangerous road rules, like random stop signs on the main highway or having to play a game of “chicken” with a tractor trailer in order to pass, the drive was quite enjoyable. There were however, the occasional sheer cliff drop-offs void of all those pesky guardrails with near-by asphalt adorned with the skid marks of vehicles not so lucky to negotiate the turn. This served as a not so gentle reminder to keep our eyes on the road and not be seduced by the scenery.

Ocean view

Ocean view

Just as the sun was setting, we arrived at our destination, San Ignacio. It is an amazing little town, whose image is easily conjured up by anyone who may have seen a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. Passing multi-colored buildings of stucco and a beautifully crumbling old church in the center of town, we made our way to our hotel. It wasn’t difficult to find, being it was the only one around for miles. Upon our arrival in town we were also exposed to the amazing aromas that wafted in through the van’s open windows. The drive there had provided us little in the terms of substantial nutritional intake, just the usual road trip fare of cookies, chips, and candy bars. We quickly unpacked all our gear into the two rooms that served as a brief respite to recharge our batteries after the long drive, than we headed off on foot into town to find the source of the delicious food bouquet. The sounds and smells of fajitas with chicken and beef grilling pulled us towards a little cafe with outdoor seating. These sensory cues draw me back to that place in time as I sit to write this. After sampling the local cuisine, we headed back to the hotel for some much needed sleep. We were informed by the hotel manager that on that very night of our stay, the annual Miss Baja Pageant was to take place. Sounded interesting until we discovered that right outside our rooms was the runway for the eager contestants and the festivities didn’t get started until 10:00p.m… This made it difficult for all of us to get sleep, but poor Christian must have drawn the short straw when it came time to choose roomies. The blaring music being emitted from the huge speakers outside was probably a welcome distraction compared to the noises from within his room. He showed great fortitude by not smothering me in my sleep with a pillow in pursuit of muffling the snoring bear in the adjacent bunk with only a night stand and Gideon’s bible as a barrier.
Morning came quickly, as we repacked up the car, grabbed a quick breakfast of huevos, jamon, y frijoles (eggs, ham, and beans) from a roadside tent stand and hit the road for San Ignacio Lagoon. The remote camp was to be our home for the next 5 days. After shooting some “B roll” (that’s movie lingo for the clips that act as filler between the actual action and help set the mood), for our cameraman/ documentarian, Christian, we were on our way. It was a bright sunny day, dirt roads, more cacti, vultures, and a van full of gear and eager SnotBot crew members. The only thing left behind was our memories in a cloud of dust as we made our way to what brought us to this country in the first place, to research Grey Whales by use of our drone platform.

San Ignacio Church

Next blog: Salt, eggs, and rice…..Hint: it’s not a recipe.

John A. Graham
SnotBot Technician/ Engineer

Robotics Club Update, May 2016

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Last week we had a trifecta of new technology on show at our Wednesday evening Robotics Club meeting.

We began by heading out into the field for a flying day, primarily test flying a number of the Alex Monell high wing flyer’s that our club members have been building. As this was many of our club members first time flying, one of our more experienced flyers Austin Monell helped the process by linking two remote controllers together so that he could help trim the planes and act as a back-up in case any pilots got into any flight difficulties.


We also had a visit from the Ipswich Tigers Team 5459. This is a Robotics group from Ipswich High School which took place in this year’s FIRST Robotics Challenge ( The FIRST Robotics program is a competition based event whereby groups of high school students form teams and are given a specific set of challenges. They then build a robot capable of meeting these challenges ( In 2016, the 25th year of the competition, 3128 teams involving around 75,000 students participated. In many ways the FIRST Robotics Challenge represents the pinnacle of competition based events in Robotics for high school students, and it was a pleasure to host the Ipswich Tigers, whom even let our own members drive their FIRST Robot 5459. This is tremendously exciting as Ocean Alliance hopes to host our own version of a FIRST Robotic Challenge in Gloucester this winter.


Last but not least we got to share and test a set of ‘HeadPlay’ goggles ( When our SnotBot research team goes on expedition, we fly our vehicles using a First Person View (FPV) perspective, whereby the drone pilot is looking at the world through a camera on the drone. We are constantly looking for the best view: of course the crisper and sharper the image, the easier it is to hover directly above the whale. Another area where FPV is very important in in small Quad racing, a sport which has taken off in recent years (pun intended!). Austin Monell brought one of his small racing quads to the field and different club members wore the HeadPlay as Austin raced around the field. Certainly this was the closest to being able to fly that we had ever come! The quad was doing flips and high speed turns and we were very surprised that no one felt sick! As the SnotBot drone operator I found that the 5 inch HD HeadPlay screen was a great improvement from the smaller goggles typically used.


This meeting was, to me, what our club is all about. Lots of different technologies, lots of different skill sets/equipment and everyone was talking, trying, flying, participating and learning. The Robotics Club is made possible through the generous support of the Applied Materials Foundation, and it is on days like this that we are most grateful for their support.

Go Paint Factory Flyers!

Iain Kerr

SnotBot Sea of Cortez Part 3: Blue Whale

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Two remarkable people joined us in La Paz to document the second (and last) leg of our Sea of Cortez expedition. Adrienne Hall from Sound Off Productions ( and wildlife cameraman Tom Fitz ( Adrienne has worked on a number of projects with my good friend Louie Psihoyos (“Racing Extinction” & “The Cove”) and Tom and I met at a friend’s wedding over 20 years ago.

Tom and Adrienne

Tom and Adrienne


By 8:00 am the SnotBot team were in a 22 ft panga heading out into Bahia La Paz both excited and a little anxious. We’d had a very productive time in Baja Mexico but we wanted to put the icing on the cake – we needed to further validate SnotBot as a scientific tool, and to do that we needed to fly with at least one more species of whale and this was the last day on the water, the last day of the expedition. Dr. Jorge Urban was at the helm along with two of his students from the University of La Paz and Adrienne and Tom were in a second boat to get a different filming perspective. So we had the A team, we had DJI drones, we had great weather, we just needed whales.  As we headed offshore I joked with Dr Urban, “OK Jorge we need a blue whale today!” In spirit, he smiled and replied,  “No problem amigo!”

Drone Launch

Drone Launch

And two hours into our search that’s what happened. We saw a blow a long way off (still too far off to confirm what species, but it did not look like a humpback blow). My heart was racing as the boats sped towards where we had seen the blows.  After 10 minutes of high speed running the boats slowed down and we immediately launched a SnotBot. Within seconds we saw a blow, still a long way off.  Luckily the Inspire 1’s top speed is close to 50 mph so I raced towards the whale and was soon close enough to see it though my FPV camera system…. and OMG – it was a blue whale!  I cannot describe my feelings as I approached this remarkable animal gliding through the water. After almost 30 years in this business and a British understated reputation to maintain, I have to admit that my hands started shaking and yes I made a mess of my first approach and did not get a blow sample.  I did not care though, the experience of flying SnotBot over the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet was an experience of a lifetime. To put this animal’s size into context: this is the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet; an adult blue whale’s tongue can weigh 6.5 tons; the heart is so big that a human adult could climb into one chamber.  Our blue whale was stunning in the crystal clear water, seeming to swim effortlessly.  After it dove I just left the drone hovering above its footprint and looked around at the rest of the team who were all ecstatic – last day on the water, beautiful weather and we were with a blue whale. I have only ever seen a blue whale once and when you look at the photo below you realize that a drone’s eye view is incomparable; it’s the ultimate viewing experience. Look at its features, how the eyes protrude so that the animal can see forward; look at all of the different musculature and markings on the animal; just look at its amazing color.  So often with SnotBot we focus on the physical data we are collecting from the blow: DNA, microbiomes, pregnancy and stress hormones, but here we can see that even the photos and video that we take have enormous scientific, educational and emotional value.

Blue body & boat

The whale was not coming up in any predictable manner (position-wise), but it was keeping pretty regular dive times (approximately 10 minutes).  So to be safe, we would prep for drone launch at eight minutes and launch at around eight and a half minutes and I would hang in the air 25 feet up looking and waiting for a blow.  This whale’s first blow was always huge, the second big and the third pretty wimpy and the animal would dive right after the third blow, so I had to get there for the second blow.  It took two more tries. I flew down the length of the body just as the whale came up and we caught a massive blow (there is even a rainbow in the blow) well over 80 microliters and just amazing photos and video.  We had 3 more blue whale blow captures that day before we left the animal, totally stunned by the whole experience, with remarkable data, footage and emotions.

Blue Snotted

I think that it is important to pause here and remember that there is no shortcut with the scientific process. We have spent years developing SnotBot working with many volunteers, conducting endless tests with more than enough failures, and a few crashes ashore and over water.  For the first leg of this expedition we spent three days flying into grey whale blows with 5 different snot collection experiments – a total of 41 flights, all of which collected snot but we made no progress collecting snot sample sizes bigger than we collected in Argentina until the 6th and last experiment. Raising funds for this work has also been a tough road, because it was new and experimental. Yes the Kickstarter campaign was successful, but for a small non profit, developing the Kickstarter campaign and running it all the way through to the fulfillment process took up an inordinate amount of staff time and costs. Five years ago pretty much everyone laughed at the SnotBot idea yet here we were collecting samples from blue, humpback, grey and southern right whales. Success is never guaranteed, hard work is – so to have hit the ball out of the ball park on the last day was an experience that is hard to define.  I have spent much of my life looking at whales from an oblique angle from a boat.  In one of our first experiments together in 1988 Roger Payne and I were flying helium balloons and parasails in Argentina trying to get up into the air and here we were 27 years later getting the perfect aerial view and I can tell you it did not disappoint!

Parasail and baloon

We learned so much on the last two expeditions; we better understand what the challenges are ahead of us and what our current limitations are. At the end of the day, though, SnotBot has been an unqualified success – the capacity and value of drones as marine mammal research tools has been validated beyond our initial expectations. The journey is by no means over though. I hope that you will stay with us; we are going to keep pushing this work forward and we hope that you will continue to support us. If you are interested in contributing to this work at any level or know someone who might want to help, please let us know.  Also be advised that there is SnotBot SWAG available in our store!

SnotBot Store

I have to thank all of you out there who are reading this for joining us on this remarkable journey.  To the many supporters without whom we could not have done this work – thank you, thank you.  My deepest thanks also go to the staff at Ocean Alliance for being the foundation upon which this work stands. Last but not least I want to thank my wife and daughter, my drone heaven has been their drone hell, my wife posted on her Facebook page just before we left “Must be a SnotBot expedition coming up, I have a drone in the bathtub, drone parts all over the dining room table and two drones on my bed.”

Dr. Iain Kerr

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part 2

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

The first leg of the SnotBot Sea of Cortez expedition was to San Ignacio lagoon, where the accessibility of grey whales gave us an opportunity to test a number of different snot sample collection techniques.  After working with fairly social Southern right whales and very social grey whales, the work was about to get a lot harder.  While we had developed a very successful sample collection platform with the DJI Inspire 1 during the first Leg, the question was could we collect snot from other species of less social whales such as humpback, blue & fin whales?

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench


So after 5 productive days in San Ignacio Lagoon, we packed up our 16 bags and made the 12-hour drive to La Paz for Leg 2.  I thought that this drive was going to be very boring with hours of endless desert. While we did have plenty of desert, the countryside was spectacular, driving along coastal roads in and out of low mountainous ranges.  The scenery kept changing from desert to dry river beds where greenery was abundant and human agriculture evident. I have seen so much of Mexico from the sea so it was a real pleasure to have this terrestrial counterpoint.

Road to La Paz

Road to La Paz


We arrived in La Paz late on Friday night with a message from Dr. Jorge Urban that it would be too windy to go out on Saturday.  As disappointed as we were to hear this, it did give us a day to organize our equipment, buy the items that we could not get in San Ignacio, and meet the film team, Adrienne & Tom, who had come to document our work for an out-of-house project (more about that later).  It was also a luxury to have a real shower, plug our battery chargers into every socket in the room and connect to the Internet!!

Hotel room

Hotel room


Sunday morning we were up at 6:30 and on the boat by 8:00.  Dr Urban (who I have known for over 20 years) from the University of La Paz was at the helm of his 22 ft panga, so we knew that if there were whales out there that we were with the best man in town to find them.  Alas,  Jorge had some bad news to share. The El Nino was wreaking havoc with the Sea of Cortez ecosystems, both marine and terrestrial, and his team were not seeing the typical patterns of whales or abundance – he had just postponed a satellite tagging project because of this.  With those thoughts in mind, we headed out in the Bahia La Paz.  Bounded by the Baja peninsular to the west and the islands of Espirito Santo and Partida to the east, Bahia La Paz extends almost 30 miles north from the city of La Paz and is on average 20 miles wide. These are (typically) very productive whale grounds, and as we spent our first day searching the bay we were regaled with stories of frequent past encounters with humpback, fin and blue whales and occasional encounters with orcas and sperm whales.

Bahia La Paz route

Bahia La Paz route


We covered over 100 sun-blistering miles the first day, stopping every hour to look and listen. Despite the optimal conditions we did not see a single blow. We returned to our hotel that night tired, sunburnt and a little disheartened.  This is the business though, so the next morning we were in the panga by 7:30 and back out on the water.  Today our guide was Iram, another seasoned biologist from Dr Urban’s team.  Alas the day did not go much better; we did put our DJI drones to work, though, sending the Phantom 4 up to 380 feet every hour using it as an eye in the sky.

As effective as the Phantom 4 was in increasing our spotting range, we still did not see any blows, and by 4:30 in the afternoon the wind had picked up to 15-20 knots so we headed back in.  We were quite close to the city of La Paz when we saw a blow and quickly identified it as a humpback whale.  Typically in conditions this windy we would not try for a blow collection (above 15 knots the wind lays the blow down and the chances of more salt water in the blow increases).  But considering that this was the first whale that we had seen in 3 days, we went for it.  We had moderate success, but every now and then we took a wave over the bow of the boat. This was not good because we had a boat full of electronics, 3 drones and supporting equipment along with close 80K of camera equipment (Christian & Tom both had Red cameras).  So we had to abandon the work and head back into port.  As you can imagine, by this time I was really sweating it (and not because of the heat). We had a very successful first leg, but we needed to validate what we had learned with other species of whales. That night I called our logistics and expedition coordinator, John Atkinson (in Canada), to set up a spotter plane for the next day. We did not have a budget for a plane but we had to find whales. We set it up so that we would spend an hour and a half driving the panga out into the bay and then we would call the plane.  Clearly the whale gods were on our side. Right when we were about to call the plane I heard Adrienne shout BLOW.  Everyone leaped into action, and less than 20 minutes later we had our first humpback whale sample and it was spectacular – our petri dishes and the Inspire 1 were dripping with snot.

Dripping drone

Dripping drone


We stayed with this animal for the next few hours, keeping the panga away, but making a number of close approaches with the Inspire 1.  Andy was timing the animal’s dives, which were running at about 9 min. Our procedure was as follows: at 8 min we would prep the Inspire 1; at 8 min 30 sec John Graham would launch the drone and I would hover above the boat ready to go.  Once we saw a blow, my challenge was to get to the whale in time for the second blow.  Once I saw the whale on the surface, I would race the drone towards it and then get into my FPV position (sometimes this would be very disorientating because I would have a drone’s eye view of the world but the boat would be bouncing out of sync with my view).  The whale seemed to like Andy because once he shouted “Should be coming up any second now” and within 5 seconds the whale surfaced. Our drone and launch protocols, our practice as a team, our development of the collection methods all seemed to come together with great results, so we were living the SnotBot dream.  Once when the whale was down Christian sent up his Inspire 1 to film our boat underway, next thing you know the Humpback breached in the frame with our boat in the picture—absolutely blooming amazing.  We went home that night over the moon. Certainly we needed to test SnotBot with other whales, but it looked as if we had a winning formula, all of this work had been caught on camera by two remarkable cameramen, and we still had one day left on the water……. and OMG what a day that was! Ill report on our last day in my next blog.

Dr. Iain Kerr



Helping Sea Shepherd Capture Nighttime Drone Footage

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Earlier this year, Ocean Alliance CEO and resident drone expert Iain Kerr helped Sea Shepherd Conservation Society put together a drone package to support Operation Milagro II in the Sea of Cortez.  Operation Milagro II was launched in November 2015 with the objective of stopping the extinction of the endangered vaquita porpoise, principally through entanglement in gill nets.  The vaquita are one of the world’s smallest cetaceans, and only inhabit the northernmost part of the Gulf of California.  They are the most endangered marine mammal in the world, with the population suspected to be only a few dozen individuals.  Although all gill nets are dangerous for vaquita, the greatest threat is posed by the gill nets used to catch the Totoaba fish due to the size of the mesh.

Having set up successful daytime patrols and working closely with the Mexican government, Sea Shepherd believed that the poachers might be setting gill nets at night.  Sea Shepherd staff called Iain Kerr and explained the problem.  After a series of conversations, Iain suggested the DJI developer drone Matrice 1 and the FLIR Vue Pro night vision thermal camera. “The Matrice is a very adaptable platform.  Crucial for this project was reliability of the DJI product, the 40 minute flight time, 3 mile range, and plug and play capacity of the FLIR Vue Pro Night Vision camera,” said Kerr.

Just this week, Iain received an email from Sea Shepherd thanking him for the support and success of this collaboration.

“We are over the moon with these results,” said Kerr. “So often we hear bad news about drones.  This project proves the enormous potential of drones as wildlife conservation tools.”

Earth Day Message from CEO Iain Kerr

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

More than anything else I see Earth Day as a time to reflect – on what we have done over the last year, of what we hope to do over the next year and how our challenges have evolved. Certainly I am more excited than ever before with the tools environmentalists, activists and scientists have, not just to collect data, but to share the word and engage people. Counter to that, whales now face more threats than ever before, from pollution, to ship strikes, entanglement in nets and lines and acoustic bleaching. Our instant access to often depressing environmental stories can lead to despair and apathy, why should I bother, what can I do? If you ever feel that way I want to remind you of the words or Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Now more than ever before is a time of hope and opportunity. Look at the success of documentaries like “ The Cove,” “ Blackfish,” and “Racing Extinction.” Over the last two years I have had the opportunity to work with groups like Parley for the Oceans, G Star Raw & Adidas; groups who are not just trying to clean up the oceans but are trying to take recycling and turn the fashion industry upside down.

As individuals we now have a voice that can be heard around the world, I encourage you to shout out, let us know how you feel, encourage others to get involved. But please remember at the end of the day it is all about our individual actions. I talk to school kids about how honey they see in the market comes from millions of bees carrying a package so small we can’t see it. We have to be the ocean’s honeybees – if millions of people just did something once a month, once a week, once a day for the environment we would change the world – for the better. Ask yourself, what is the blue legacy you want to leave, and have a great Earth (Ocean) Day.

Iain Kerr, CEO Ocean Alliance

Eye to eye

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part I

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

SnotBot Sea of Cortez was a remarkable expedition with the highest highs and the lowest lows. I was lucky to have a remarkable team with me: technician John Graham, scientist Andy Rogan and photographer/videographer Christian Miller. We had great weather, food, and, most importantly, whales. Here is part one—San Ignacio Lagoon and gray whales.

SnotBot Patagonia proved that we could collect snot from whales using a drone. The primary goal for SnotBot Sea of Cortez was to see if we could increase the snot sample size so that we would have enough to use for all the different analysis that we are interested in.  The secondary goal was to collect snot from multiple whale species to make sure that our previous collection success was not a fluke (pun intended).

In Patagonia our average sample size was around 20 microliters (one small drop of water).  For the Sea of Cortez we set ourselves an optimistic goal of 80 microliters. Imagine building a go-kart that does 50 mph on the first run and taking it home and saying next time we want to go 200 mph.  The Sea of Cortez is a very diverse region species-wise so we were also hoping to encounter gray, humpback and blue whales.  Last but not least, we wanted to do this work with off-the-shelf drones, so that this work can be replicable and scalable, so we were lucky to have the world leader in drone development DJI providing us with the drones. We took with us the new DJI Phantom 4 and the DJI Inspire 1.

DJI P 4-1

DJI Phantom 4


Inspire 1 Petri-1

DJI Inspire 1


Working with Dr. Jorge Urban’s team from the University of La Paz, our first study site was San Ignacio Lagoon. The gray whales are so friendly here that you do not need a SnotBot to collect blows as they come right up to the boat to be touched and you can’t help but get “snotted.”  Because of this, though, they were the perfect whales for us to conduct multiple flights into blows to test our different snot collection devices. We had a total of five different snot collection devices and procedures that we wanted to test.

One would think that drones would not be good snot collection tools–the whales are blowing the snot up, but the drones, to fly, are blowing air down. Technically we had opposing forces.  For our first set of experiments we used different collection tools at the end of a pole, extending the collection device out of the drone’s prop wash.  We ran multiple flights with five different collection methods:

  1. Nitex weave cloth (very similar to wedding veil)
  2. Stockings on a wire frame (this method has been used on a long pole)
  3. A different weave and texture Nitex cloth
  4. A number of Petri dishes on a T bar (an upgrade of our Patagonia method)
  5. A medical sponge material developed in Malden, MA for hospitals.
Collection methods

Collection methods

The idea is that the different holes, size, and consistency of the materials will collect and hold the snot with different levels of success. The problem with this method is that you have to get the snot out of the capture material after the flight, so we brought a centrifuge to Mexico so that we could spin the snot out from the collection material. The Nitex cloth balls were split up into 4 different pieces so that each section could just be dropped into one of the centrifuge tubes after a flight.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning we flew over 49 flights into gray whale blows.  We were getting into the blows okay and we were getting amazing footage but we were not increasing our sample size by any significant amount.  So on Wednesday afternoon, we attached two 4 inch Petri dishes and one 6 inch petri dish on top of the DJI Inspire 1 with industrial grade velcro.  The idea here was not to get out of the downdraft created by the drone but to use the down draft of the drone to collect snot for us. We believed that the Inspire 1 would be very well-suited to this because while most drones have big round bodies, the Inspire 1 has a long thin body and the propellers are raised above the body. So we put Petri dishes onto the Inspire 1 (see photos of the petri dishes hanging over the body) flew into a gray whale blow and we hit the jackpot.  The petri dishes were literally flooded in snot–Andy Rogan estimated a minimum of 80 micro liters from just one blow.  If we could fly into more than one blow from an animal (and we did) we would collect more than enough snot for the analysis we wanted to do and probably as much snot (or more) than people who have used long poles to collect snot from whales.

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

I should mention that on my very first flight in the Sea of Cortez I crashed and critically damaged a drone. Not a good start. To be knocking the ball out of the ballpark three days later was more like the script for a movie than an actual scientific experiment.  On Thursday morning we went back out to the gray whales with the Inspire 1 and with ten more flights (a total of 59 with grey whales) we consistently repeated our success from the day before.

It should be said that even this experienced team was overtaken by these amazing animals on occasion. I fly the drones FPV (first person view) so I am not looking at the world around me–I have my head pushed against a Hoodman screen cover so that all I can see is a drone’s-eye-view of the world on my IPad. During one flight no one was responding to my question so I took my head away from the screen to see three guys hanging over the side of the boat hugging a whale. Just before we headed back in on the last day I took off my flight and screen harness and managed to touch a whale myself, which Christian Miller caught on camera.

Iain FPV-2

Iain using Hoodman screen



Iain touching a whale. Photo by Christian Miller.

Thursday afternoon we packed up all of our equipment in preparation for the 12-hour drive back down to La Paz where we hoped to find humpback whales and maybe, just maybe, blue or fin whales.  We had been warned that El Nino had had a severe effect on the region and that they had not been seeing the number of whales that they had seen in years past. At this point we did not care – we had over 80 micro liters of snot from a single blow so goal # 1 achieved.  Mission Accomplished!

Chemical Pollution Threatens Marine Life, by Andy Rogan

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

In a rare move, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) have tried to revoke their temporary approval of a new pesticide on to the market.

The decision has sparked fear amongst the industry which creates these pesticides over concerns that this might represent a more long-term shift in policy, whilst offering hope to activists who have long been pushing for more stringent safety protocols which all new pesticides must pass.

The EPA are basing this move on evidence that suggests that the pesticide under question, flubendiamide, bio-accumulates in fresh and salt water ecosystems, inhibiting the ability of key environmental drivers to perform necessary biological functions. This can ultimately lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems.

At Ocean Alliance, we cannot claim to fully understand the regulations which the EPA and industry must conform to regarding the release of new pesticides on to the market. What we do understand are the potential risks of pesticides and other pollutants, and how incredibly important it is that robust safety measures must be implemented and carefully adhered too before a product is deemed suitable for the open market. Whilst this might be costly to the industry, the risks of not doing so are potentially catastrophic.

The January 1979 National Geographic magazine included an article written by our Founder and President Dr. Roger Payne, an article famous for featuring a song sheet of Roger’s whale recordings, which was at the time the most produced song sheet in history. What fewer people know is that in the same article Roger made the following statement:

‘Pollution has replaced the harpoon as a mortal threat to whales, and in its way can be far more deadly. If we ignore the dangers of tanker spills, industrial contamination, and simple human carelessness, then nothing can save the whales.’

38 years later, we can definitively say that Roger was correct. Chemical pollution is one of the greatest threats marine mammals face: in my opinion it is one of the three greatest dangers together with the growing threat of climate change & ocean acidification, and bycatch in global commercial fisheries, which is estimated to result in the mortality of well over 600,000 marine mammals every year. We are constantly releasing a suite of new chemicals into the ocean environment, many of which can take some time to bio-accumulate and begin negatively affecting the marine ecosystem. By the time robust evidence exists to prove this, the damage is already well and truly done. At the most recent Marine Mammal Conference in San Francisco, Ocean Alliance scientists sat in on a lecture in which NOAA scientists discussed the findings of their latest research in which they were monitoring toxicants in the waters off of California. Of the number of toxicants detected, between 30-40% were entirely unknown. This is an incredibly worrying statistic.

The threat of organic pollutants (which includes many pesticides) has long been recognised and has resulted in many compounds, such as the insecticide DDT and the widely used industrial compounds PCBs, being banned across much of the world. In 2004 the international community came together to meet this growing threat, signing the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an attempt to reduce or eliminate the release of POPs into the environment.

Recent studies however have suggested that some toxicants can have significant negative consequences to the marine environment even at low doses and many years after their use is banned. Researchers at The Zoological Society of London have one of the longest running data sets on PCBs in the world. Their research strongly suggests that PCBs today represent THE MOST SIGNIFICANT THREAT to marine mammal apex predators in Europe, a full THIRTY YEARS after they were banned. Indeed they are recognised as the most likely reason the last resident population of Killer whales (Orca) no longer have the capability to breed, meaning that population, with its unique culture and language, is functionally extinct. Levels of PCBs are similar in coastal waters of the United States and it is likely that they are having a similar effect on marine mammal populations there and all over the world in areas which PCBs were readily used.

Of these many thousands of new chemicals being released annually, all it takes is for one to be a new ‘PCB’, before enormous damage is done to life in our oceans. The economic costs of this would be colossal, not to mention the costs to the environment (though of course the two are very much inseparable). Certainly, they would dwarf the economic benefits of releasing a pesticide early without proper safety checks.

As above, we do not claim to know whether the EPA guidelines and safety measures regarding the approval of new chemicals are robust enough or not. But we do know that if they are not robust enough, we are likely causing harm to the environment which will make its effects known for many, many years to come. Since Roger made his statement in 1979, Ocean Alliance has been striving to save our oceans and marine mammals by studying this ever-growing threat, indeed at the Marine Mammal Conference in December 2015, four papers were presented using data collected during the 2000-2005 Voyage of the Odyssey and the 2010-2014 Gulf of Mexico program.

Here is the link to the original article on NPR.

Andy Rogan is Scientific Coordinator at Ocean Alliance.

Irish Documentary “Atlantic” to Premiere in US on March 19

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Launched in Ireland in recent days, ‘Atlantic’, narrated by Emmy Award-winning actor Brendan Gleeson, took Best Irish Documentary at the Dublin International Film Festival.  Its US premiere will take place at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC on Saturday March 19 at 2.15pm at the Carnegie Institute for ScienceDiscussion with director Risteard Ó Domhnaill will follow the screening.

Shot across the North Atlantic over a number of years, the film follows fishing communities in Ireland, Norway and Newfoundland, who are losing their livelihoods as oil companies drill ever deeper into their waters, and “super-trawler” fleets fish their stocks to the brink.

A large part of the story involves seismic airgun mapping for oil and gas, and what the future holds for marine habitats faced with such invasive technology. As this is such a crucial issue along the eastern US seaboard at the minute, this would be a great opportunity to see what other communities further afield are facing with the same issue.

“How The SnotBot & 3D Printing Are Unlocking The Key To Whale & Ocean Conservation,” from our partner CAPINC

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

The following article first appeared on the CAPINC website on March 1, 2016.

Ocean Alliance, like the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, has its origins in the bounty and fauna of the sea. Headquartered in the historic Tarr and Wonson Paint Factory, Ocean Alliance, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that was founded in 1971 by renowned biologist Dr. Roger Payne. Ocean Alliance strives to increase public awareness of the importance of whale and ocean health through research and public education. Led by Dr. Payne, CEO Dr. Iain Kerr , Ocean Alliance works with scientific partners to collect a broad spectrum of data on whales and ocean life. Ocean Alliance uses this data to advise educators, policy makers, and the general public on wise stewardship of the oceans to mitigate pollution, prevent the collapse of marine mammal populations, and promote ocean and human health.

Innovation In Conservation

CEO Dr. Iain Kerr has spent years researching whales, and explained that the best way to understand the ocean and its inhabitants is through biological data. In the past, the only approach to attain physical samples from whales was through a biopsy crossbow. This method provided valuable specimens, but proved to be a large undertaking. Dr. Iain Kerr explained,

It seemed to me that there had to be an easier way to do this. Having been a hobbyist and a Maker for most of my life, and in watching the direction in which the hobbyist drone industry was going, I realized that there was a real opportunity to use drones to benefit whales and humanity.”

Dr. Kerr’s overall goal was to develop a research drone that could be used to collect non-invasive biological and photographic data from marine and terrestrial mammals. Using the collected samples of DNA, viruses, bacteria, stress and pregnancy hormones from whale blows, researchers could gather data to better understand whales, the oceans, and humanity’s effect on them in a benign manner. The team at Ocean Alliance believed that the drone design should be easily replicable and scalable, so that it could be adopted as a research tool around the globe. Using their design skills, Ocean Alliance created the first SnotBot.

What Is SnotBot?

SnotBots are custom-built drones created in partnership between Ocean Alliance and students from Olin College of Engineering. Guided by a remote driver, they hover in the air above a surfacing whale and collect the mist (blow) exhaled from its lungs on petri dishes. SnotBot then returns that “snot” sample back to researchers a significant distance away. This non-invasive technique not only collects substantial physical data from each specimen, but also leaves the whales undisturbed, allowing for a more accurate biological picture of the animals.

With over a dozen iterations of SnotBot, the designs evolved with the team’s better understanding of the machine capacity and payloads. The more they learned, the more they were able to push their designs and plans. With a natural hobbyist inclination to make, break and test things, Dr. Kerr believed in 3D printing as a tool to help further their ideas.

I like to think of Ocean Alliance as an ocean innovator. I sometimes joke with my friends and say we’re not on the cutting edge; we’re on the bleeding edge. It’s tough to be an innovator. And often it’s tough to express an idea, or realize an idea, and test an idea. It can be very expensive. And this is where I think 3D printing is changing the world.”

MakerBot Replicator Mini

MakerBot Replicator Mini

Using 3D Printing To Advance The Design Process

January of 2015, CAPINC donated a MakerBot Replicator Mini 3D printer to Ocean Alliance to help further their SnotBot and robotics designs. The addition of the 3D printer has allowed Ocean Alliance to brainstorm multiple iterations of designs, enabling them to test their ideas in the field.

This is where a company like CAPINC comes in because you can’t go down to Home Depot and say I need something to attach a FLIR camera to a drone that is light weight, adaptable, and adjustable. So the capacity for us to even build prototypes of what we think we need, or actually build the real thing, is very exciting.”

The MakerBot Replicator Mini is an entry-level 3D printer, ideal for new users interested in 3D printing, with minimal investment required. Dr. Kerr and his team have enjoyed having an in-house 3D printer.

The unit that we have, that CAPINC has been supporting us with, has been a MakerBot, which, I must say, has been a lot of fun. And I think as an entry-level machine it’s worked very well for us. I will admit we’ve done our prototyping with the MakerBot and then we’ve gone to a next-level machine to do the final products.”

One of the projects 3D printing was heavily used in was designing the SnotShot. The SnotShot was created by Olin students to simulate various whale blowholes & blow patterns, allowing Ocean Alliance to test the different types of blows they might encounter with the SnotBot. This gave the team a better understanding of how to capture the most snot possible, before they even set sail on the open ocean. By 3D printing simulated blowholes for different whale species, they were able to test their SnotBot designs and make updates, saving them valuable time on their expeditions & avoiding prototype testing over live animals.

3D Printed Right Whale Blowhole; Blowhole Attached To SnotShot; SnotShot Testing Out A SnotBot

3D Printed Right Whale Blowhole; Blowhole Attached To SnotShot; SnotShot Testing Out A SnotBot

Along with their ocean and whale research, Ocean Alliance has spearheaded the development of an on-site robotics program. The Applied Robotics Club meets every Wednesday evening, providing an opportunity for people in the community young and old, to learn and explore anything from coding to design & construction, giving them to get hands-on experiential learning. Dr. Kerr has not only enjoyed the MakerBot 3D printer for SnotBot prototyping, but with the robotics club.

The 3D printer has been invaluable! Not only in building unique parts that we need, and silly things that we might not need, but were fun to do, it has also helped us develop our thought and design process. It also encouraged both students and staff to explore ideas of building components that otherwise would almost be unimaginable.”

SnotBot Expeditions

Since it’s first iteration, the SnotBot has been thoroughly tested and went on its first expedition this past fall in Peninsular Valdez, Patagonia. Ocean Alliance chose this location due to its enormous biodiversity. Since the 1970’s, they have been studying in Patagonia, with this last expedition being a great success.

We have just completed the first successful SnotBot expedition to Patagonia. We have proved the viability of these drones as useful and adaptable research tools. In the course of the next year we plan to run a minimum of two more expeditions, one to the Sea of Cortez and one to Frederick Sound, Alaska, to build up our data sets, get as many flights over whales and work with as many whale species as our budget will allow.”

These future locations were specifically chosen based on the species that frequent the habitat and drawing from the experience of Ocean Alliance’s previous research expeditions.

The Future Of SnotBot

Formulating innovative and new ideas like the SnotBot takes brainpower and a determination to try multiple iterations. Traditional manufacturing methods cost extensive time and money, two things that are precious to not-for-profit organizations like Ocean Alliance. Luckily, 3D printing breaks down manufacturing barriers by allowing intricate designs to be built in-house for a substantially lower cost. CAPINC is a proud sponsor of Ocean Alliance and their 3D printing needs.

The future is big for SnotBot and its upcoming designs. With the next two expeditions already funded through their Kickstarter campaign, Ocean Alliance is still in need of donors to help create future SnotBot iterations for new data sets. To learn more about Ocean Alliance and their projects, including the SnotBot, visit them at and explore their Kickstarter Campaign, where you can become a donor and get frequent updates on their research and expeditions.


“Thank you, FLIR!” from OA Scientific Coordinator Andy Rogan

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

During the summer of 2014, whilst studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to the FLIR Corporation we had the opportunity to test a night vision (Infrared) system aboard our research vessel Odyssey.

How these cameras work is complex, involving the range of light which they detect. Whilst not technically accurate, they essentially detect heat. This means that they are commonly used in night vision applications as they do not require the same visible light which allows us to see the world around us. Since they display an image based on temperature differentials they actually have daytime and night-time uses.

At Ocean Alliance we are always looking for new tools and technologies which might help us better understand whales. One problem with studying whales (and indeed many animals) is that we do not have a good understanding of what they do at night, simply because we cannot see them. Are they searching for and eating food? Are they mating? Socialising? Resting? Does their behaviour even change much during a day/night cycle? Whales are acoustic animals, which means sound is very important in their everyday lives. By listening to them (via an underwater microphone or hydrophone) we can gain a better understanding of where they are and what they might be doing at night and during the day. But it often leaves us with a very incomplete picture.

This is where infrared cameras & the FLIR Corporation come in. FLIR is the world leader in the design, manufacture and marketing of thermal imaging infrared cameras. FLIR cameras are used for many military, commercial and recreational activities. The value of FLIR systems in search & rescue and disaster situations is incalculable. New products to the market include the FLIR One that fits on the back of an iPhone and the FLIR Vue which fits on a drone.

As you can see from the attached video, this technology is a game changer enabling us to study whales at night. Indeed you can often see where the whales have been simply by the wake and the footprint which they leave. When we did test studies on our vessel, the camera was so powerful that it could see where we had been standing because our feet had left residual heat on the deck! We even observed Sperm whales breaching at night, something which likely has never been seen before (sadly the only footage we have of this event was taken on a smart phone looking at the video display).

For us this is all very exciting, and leads to many possibilities. Along with our interest in new technologies we are very excited about our ‘SnotBot’ program, which is all about developing drones for whale research (you can read more about it here). In the future we will be merging these two technologies, mounting a FLIR Vue camera on SnotBot!

We also think that this tool has enormous potential for other industries which might come in to contact with whales. Ship strikes are a major threat to whales all around the world. If we could fit vessels with FLIR cameras which could detect whales at night, we could potentially stop many needless whale deaths. Oil and gas companies use seismic airguns when searching for hydrocarbon deposits beneath the seabed. These airguns are incredibly loud and potential harmful to whales. If they had FLIR camera they would have a better idea of whether there were any whales in the vicinity at night. These are just two examples of how FLIR cameras could help protect whales.

Many, many thanks must go to the FLIR Corporation for being an innovator in this field and for lending us this remarkable piece of equipment.

Andy Rogan is Ocean Alliance Scientific Coordinator.

CEO Iain Kerr Joins Advisory Board of Drone World Expo

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr has been named to the Advisory Board of Drone World Expo, where “thought leaders, industry experts, and end-users gather in the heart of Silicon Valley to present real-world solutions to business and environmental challenges.”  The advisory board, comprised of several prominent industry leaders, will help set the direction of the education program for the 2016 event, to be held November 15-16 at the San Jose Convention Center in San Jose, CA.

During the 2015 event, our partner Yuneec Aviation proudly displayed how we deployed its drones in the first SnotBot expedition in Patagonia.


The complete press release from Drone World Expo can be found here.


The Silver Bullet, Part 2: Less is More — Much More, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

In my previous blog I pointed out that if you accept the premise that overpopulation is the root cause of all of humanity’s biggest problems, then if we all work on having fewer children, we will also be helping to reduce all of the world’s major problems.

I also noted that we need to get rid of the near-prohibition on even talking about overpopulation, because only when we get rid of it can we start applying what I’ll call the Two Step Program—a method that has been successful in the broadest possible variety of human cultures and that works its magic without anyone forcing anyone else to do anything. I.e. it is not like the policy China recently revoked which penalized couples for having more than one child—there’s nothing mandatory about the Two Step Program. It’s entirely voluntary. Here it is, in all of its complexity:

Step 1) Offer women a free education.
Step 2) Offer everyone free contraceptive materials plus free instruction in their use.

Wherever and whenever both of these approaches have been tried, the rate of increase of the population has started to fall.

That means that the effectiveness of the Two Step Program has already been demonstrated. We know it works and we know how to use it. But most importantly: it lowers population growth rates voluntarily. Reversal is achieved without anyone telling anyone else that they have to use contraceptives; free contraceptive materials are simply made available free, and each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether to use them. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.

For many people, the big deterrent to having no children or only one is that it seems to be so purely negative. But a small family offers ENORMOUS advantages.

It is those benefits that are the subject of this blog.

Let me offer a list of some of the positive things that having one child or no children bring:

  • You avoid the astronomical costs to yourself and the environment of raising more  children… and grandchildren.
  • You can give one child your full attention.
  • You can give one child the best education.
  • You can give one child the most healthy diet.
  • You can give one child the healthiest and best lifestyle.
  • If you have one child and he/she follows the same principles that your child did you will have only one grandchild.
  • If you have only one grandchild you can give it your full attention and offer greater help in giving it the best education, most healthy diet, and best lifestyle.
  • You will have more time yourself for other things (and have more fun doing them).
  • Every street, every store, every public space, every space of any kind you occupy will be less crowded.
  • You will experience fewer traffic jams.
  • You will waste less of your life waiting in lines.
  • Your commuting time will be shorter.
  • The price of housing will be lower… everywhere.
  • Your world will be more tranquil.
  • You will see more stars, even when you are close to cities.
  • Your life will feature more encounters with more abundant, and more unusual wildlife. And if you live in the country the dawn and dusk choruses of birds will be richer and more enchanting.

But of most direct advantage to you and your child will be that if you and your friends have worked hard enough to persuade several others to follow your example, then every other problem the world faces will be starting to get smaller. E.g.:

  • Global warming will start to slow down and will eventually stop.
  • The oceans will start becoming less, rather then more acidic, and coral reefs and seashells will start to reappear (although, alas, extremely slowly).
  • Species extinction rates will slow down and will eventually return to their almost unimaginably slow normal—a rate between a thousandth and a ten thousandth of the current, Anthropocene extinction rate).
  • The air you breathe will become cleaner and less polluted.
  • The water you drink and in which you wash your food, your dishes, your clothes, your child and yourself will become less polluted.
  • The ocean in which you swim, and in which the fish you eat grow up, will become less and less polluted (as will, of course, the fish).
  • And you will have better luck fishing, because there will be more and bigger fish.
  • When you snorkel you will have better underwater visibility.
  • Hunger and homelessness will come to an end.
  • The rate of topsoil loss will slow to far less significance.
  • Aquifers will refill.
  • There will be fewer causes (and excuses) for wars.

But the best of all, “Oh my best beloved,” you will not have to apologize to your child or grandchild for having done nothing to help solve the world’s biggest problem. You can, in fact, boast about having participated in its solution. And you will not have to tell your grandchild what a tiger was.

Or an elephant.
Or a rhinoceros.
Or a panda.
Or a pink dolphin,
Or a cheetah.

Well, you get my point.
We have come to the really hard part: doing something to achieve these benefits. You and I must both stop postponing action—must stand up and do something about overpopulation. One thing we can do is to spread the word about how utterly important the advantages of having a small family are.

But that will only happen if take the time and the initiative to talk to, and write to, our friends and relatives, about this uncomfortable subject, all the while emphasizing the urgency of slowing overpopulation and the importance of keeping families small (for there is, unfortunately, only one way to lower population size humanely and that is to reduce family size).

Step one is getting the world to pay attention to how important small families are. And I believe that that will only transpire when people understand how enormous the advantages are of having fewer children.

So now comes the thing that is hardest for me, personally, to do: in the interests of full disclosure I must admit that although I love them individually, collectively, and in all of their combinations, I have four children. I realize that in the eyes of most people, that gives me no right to offer any advice whatsoever about family size.  However, my excuse is that all of my children were conceived before
The Pill became broadly known and broadly available (I realize that, like all excuses, that’s pretty weak).

Each child was a triumph of biology over whatever form of birth control my wife and I were practicing at the time, and always because some previous technique had failed. But it is because of that history that I think what I have to say does have value and may be something that should not just be discarded out of hand. For I have noticed that if someone who has failed at something is willing to be honest about why they failed, their advice is likely to be more valuable than the advice of someone who succeeded at it. For example: I would rather hear about driver safety from someone who has survived an accident than from someone who’s never experienced one. (The corollary to that is that because I am in the latter category I realize that I know less about what strategy is likely to fail than those who have suffered the consequences of such failures.)

During the time that has passed since the years in which I was busy failing at non-reproduction, contraception has experienced several game-changing advances. The one that finally saved my wife and me was my getting a vasectomy (I couldn’t find a people-doctor willing to risk doing it as it was an illegal procedure at the time so I got a veterinarian to do it). It was as clear then, as it is now, that in any partnership it’s the man who should have such an operation; for we men only require a local anesthetic, whereas the equivalent operation for a woman requires a general anesthetic, and that can be life-threatening.

My reason for offering this vivid example of too much information about one’s private life is to say that having personally experienced it I know that after a vasectomy sex is not less pleasurable, it is more pleasurable. You can’t detect any differences in sensations yet you now know there is no longer any danger that you’ll give your partner an unwanted pregnancy—something she appreciates as much as you do, and demonstrates by her reaction.

In summary:

Smaller families offer monumentally positive advantages, both for individuals and society. If enough people can be persuaded to experience those advantages, the problem of overpopulation can be solved—by advocating for the Two Step Program:

1) Offering women a free education.

2) Offering everyone free contraceptive materials plus free instruction in their use.

Given how many other problems will be lessened by ending overpopulation, I suggest that there is no greater mischief any dogma can create (religious, moralistic, or otherwise) than placing obstacles in the path of techniques whose goals are to reduce the human population without pressure.

The Two-Step Program achieves such a reduction and it is time for all of us to participate in promoting the goal of solving the population problem equitably by employing such techniques.

— Roger Payne

The Silver Bullet: A New Year’s Resolution to Tackle Overpopulation, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

It’s that time of year when we decide on what New Year’s resolution to make. I suspect that the best ones are those that make the biggest differences, and to make a big difference you need to address a big problem. So… to make a good resolution: 1) identify the biggest problems; 2) choose one, and; 3) resolve to do what you can to reduce that problem.

When I say the biggest problems I’m talking about REALLY BIG world problems: global warming, ocean acidification, extinction of species, overpopulation, air pollution, water pollution, ocean pollution, overfishing, destruction of coral reefs, hunger, homelessness, social injustice, overconsumption, loss of top soils, depletion of aquifers, and numberless wars.

The trouble with the biggest problems is that they are all so big and what causes them is so different in each case, that solving them involves dauntingly complex approaches. This results in a generally accepted belief that there is no such thing as a silver bullet for any of the world’s biggest problems.

I challenge that belief; let me be provocative: I agree that each of our biggest problems has a root cause but I believe that a root cause for every biggest problem is the same root cause—overpopulation. That means that if we could somehow reverse overpopulation we would be helping cure not just overpopulation, but all of our biggest problems.

Let me put all this another way; if you agree with me that overpopulation is a root cause for all of our biggest problems then the only valid conclusion to be drawn is: if we can solve overpopulation we will be helping solve all of our biggest problems. That makes solving the overpopulation problem a silver bullet.

But to start solving it we must first get rid of what seems almost like an embargo on even discussing overpopulation.

That is something that every one of us can help remove by giving every organization we are part of the strong message that overpopulation is the world’s number one problem, and that until we can reverse it there is no hope, but once we start reversing it there will be huge amounts of hope, because we will be reducing the severity of every one of the world’s biggest problems.

That step will show that there is a silver bullet that can help solve all of our biggest problems, and that silver bullet is simply having smaller families.

The most important thing about this is that we already know how to make the population get smaller without forcing anyone to do anything they don’t want to do.

The method has reduced the population of the most dissimilar imaginable human cultures. Furthermore it has worked its magic without anyone forcing anyone else to do anything. It is not like the recently revoked China policy which penalized couples for having more than one child. There’s nothing mandatory about the technique I’m promoting. It’s entirely voluntary.

Shooting this Silver Bullet involves two steps:

  1. Educating women
  2. Offering everyone free contraceptive materials, along with training in how to use them effectively.

Wherever and whenever both of these approaches have been tried the population has gotten smaller (as long as proper instruction in using the free contraceptives was given).

So the effectiveness of this silver bullet has already been demonstrated. We know it works and we know how to use it. And best of all, it works to reverse overpopulation voluntarily—not punitively. Reversal is achieved without anyone telling anyone else that they have to use contraceptives. Contraceptive materials are simply made available free, and each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether they want to use them. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.

The thing that makes this approach work is that it turns out that the natural inclination of women everywhere when they get an education is to do something with their lives in addition to bearing and raising children. So if they have access to free contraceptives it turns out that a significant number of women will use them to postpone or avoid pregnancies, with the result that the population gets smaller.

Some organized religions have major objections to solving the overpopulation problem. But even in countries where the dominant religion strongly opposes birth control, educating women and making contraceptives available free results in lower birthrates. For example, the populations of the two countries with the lowest birthrates in the EU are 90 and 99 percent Catholic. And Italy, the country that hosts the Pope, is an EU leader in reducing its population. (And I have seen the claim that Italy also has more women PhDs than any other European country.)

If I am right (or even if I’m only partly right) it means there is a silver bullet that can help cure all of our biggest problems. I say that’s reason enough for each of us to make our New Year’s resolution be: to devote our free time and energy to telling everyone we know everywhere about this silver bullet and asking them to help spread the word about the benefits of small families. If you, and I, and they do this we will all be helping shrink the world’s biggest problems.

And we will all be striking at the roots of these problems while everyone else is slashing at the branches.

In my next blog I will discuss some of the benefits of small families.

– Roger Payne

Dr. Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

Seasons Greetings and Thanks from Ocean Alliance

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Roger Payne developing a benign research tool in Antarctica – the penguin suit

Dear Friends,

As your year-end thoughts reflect on the past and the future, I would like you to know that Ocean Alliance had a remarkable year. (I encourage you to go to our website and see the diversity of postings).  I believe in the power of a small group of passionate individuals — a point Margret Mead made famous by saying… (but you know what she said).

This year we worked with half-a-dozen partners around the world, collected data, conducted data analyses and published papers. Ten scientific presentations at the recent biennial meeting of the Society for Marine Mammalogy featured our work. Based on our data CEO Iain Kerr addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations about giving ocean conservation priority in the Paris climate talks agenda (COP-21). Our Kickstarter campaign supporting SnotBot was a big success. Not only in creating an innovative research tool, it also showed the effectiveness of large numbers of people giving small contributions.

But… I urge you to consider how even more effective it might be if smaller numbers of people gave slightly larger contributions to Ocean Alliance as year-end gifts.  I am hoping you are one of that small number who will help us promote healthy oceans to benefit humanity and ocean life.

– Roger Payne

Dr. Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

Intern Spotlight: Gregory Taylor

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Hosting interns at Ocean Alliance is hugely important to us.  The work we do simply could not continue if it weren’t for ensuring we nurture a new crop of next-generation scientists, researchers and engineers into the world each year to solve the pressing challenges faced by our oceans.  So we thought it fitting that each of our interns gets introduced to you and a chance to shine in a spotlight, and as a thanks for all their hard work, with hopefully a bit of a leg-up into their new career.

Name: Gregory Taylor
Studying: Environmental Science
Studying at: Endicott College

What brought you to choose to study this subject?

I chose to study environmental science because I knew it was something that was going to need a lot of attention over the course of my lifetime. Climate change and all of its consequences (ocean acidification, sea level rise, etc.) along with deforestation, CO2 production and many other global environmental issues, all require the attention and responsibility of everyone who lives and breathes on this planet. I wanted to study the environmental sciences so I can help fix the mess we have created because I feel that responsibility is partly mine. It is also a very broad and interdisciplinary field that I am positive I will be able to find a job in where I can help fix the pressing environmental issues of our generation.

What have been your major tasks at Ocean Alliance so far?

Well first, I created a ~10 terabyte library of video data from The Voyage of the Odyssey. I also further developed Ocean Alliance’s internship program by creating formal intern and volunteer applications, as well as created a welcome packet for new interns. I am currently working on expanding Ocean Alliance’s whale adoption program.

What have you most enjoyed about working at Ocean Alliance?

The site. It is so amazing coming into work every day at such an iconic building and being able to see and hear the ocean right under my feet. I also particularly enjoy working with both 7 Seas Whale Watch and Ocean Alliance on their joint summer internship program. Creating the new application and smoothing out the selection process will make things run much smoother next summer.

What’s been your biggest challenge working at Ocean Alliance?

My biggest challenge here was finding the confidence to talk at staff meetings. In the beginning I don’t think I said anything during meetings. Now I have my own speaking time towards the end of the meetings and feel confident enough to throw my two cents in at any point. The team has actually wanted to move forward with a few of my ideas!

What have you learned about yourself and your subjects at Ocean Alliance?

I have learned how important whales are to life on earth. These animals are the sentinels for the oceans. That means that if they are affected by ocean meta-trends like microplastics, pollution, acidification etc, then we can use them as models for the effects owe might see as humans. For example, we share food sources like fish. If the whales are unable to eat because pollution is killing off their prey, then not only will the whales be without fish, but we will be too.

What’s it like working for a non-profit compared to studying?

Working for a non-profit is, in a way, more satisfying than studying. It is more hands on here so for example, I can give myself tasks to work on and when I complete those tasks I feel a sense of immediate reward, whereas at school I may work on things for weeks to months and not get that reward sense at all. Getting an A on a test is great but there are always going to be more tests. Making intern applications, welcome packets and expanding their whale adoption program that can be used for years to come is much more satisfying to me.

What’s your favorite marine mammal – and why?

A humpback whale named Milkweed. On one of my first whale watches this past summer we spotted her and watched her for a long while. At one point I was looking over the starboard side after she went down on a dive and she came up and spy-hopped right in front of my face. It was one of the most surreal feelings I have ever felt. Seeing her (almost) face to face gave me a sense of how big she really was. That moment in time has been fixed in my mind ever since and has been a driving factor in my desire to conserve and educate people about these gentle giants.

What’s your favorite ocean film – and why?

Racing Extinction by Louie Psihoyos. It is one of the most moving documentaries ever created in my opinion. It exposes the illegal endangered wildlife trade in other countries, not only to see how brutal some of the things they do are, but also to offer alternatives. Manta Rays play a huge role in the film. In Indonesia they are the natives’ main source of income (they can dry and sell the gills and dry cartilage to china) Shawn Heinrichs works to get them on the globally endangered list- and succeeds- as well as offers the natives a new perspective on the Manta Ray. He shows the younger generation how beautiful the creatures are and was able to really connect with the kids. The film also brings awareness to anthropogenic climate change and the causes of it. It really is a great film I highly recommend it.

What do you hope to become when you finish your studies?

Well, when I am done studying I will have a B/S in Environmental Science, and am currently applying for an MBA, so hopefully I can find a job somewhere that is focused on helping the environment and that can utilize the skills I have.

What are your hopes for the future as you look at our world today?

We all have to do something. The problems we face aren’t going to be solved by just a few people. We all contribute to the problem so we all need to help fix it. My hopes are that as time progresses, the people who previously denied climate change and every other important environmental issue will change the way they think and really start to see what is wrong and how to fix it. The more people that change and do something the more people will follow it would create a movement, when movements happen, legislation happens, and that is really what we need.

Ocean Acidification, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

By now, most people probably know that the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated by burning fossil fuels causes global warming. But fewer people know that the CO2 the seas absorb combines with seawater to make carbonic acid, which raises the acidity of the oceans. Since humanity started burning coal in earnest 150-200 years ago the seas have become 30 percent more acidic and it is now known that in some areas such species as oysters, and corals are already being prevented from retaining (or forming) their shells, simply because these animals can’t make their shells or their stone-like houses if the water is too acidic.

Ocean acidity also devastates a series of tiny animals with unfamiliar names like pteropods—a kind of snail with wings that are used to fly underwater. Pteropods form shoals containing millions of individuals and are a principal food for baleen whales.

Ocean acidity already affects such tiny planktonic organisms as coccolithophores, corraline algae and foraminiferans, all of which live at the bases of ocean food chains. If the seas get acidic enough to cause these plankton populations to crash, it will demolish the complex food pyramids that support all economically important ocean food pyramids. That’s because all such food pyramids are entirely dependent on plankton. If the plankton die, the whole pyramid dies. No phyto-plankton, no zooplankton. No zooplankton, no fish. No fish, no whales (or seals, or sea birds, or the roughly1billion people-who-depend-on-fish as their primary source of animal protein). We must also not forget that it is plankton that provide the oxygen for two out of every three breaths we take (a topic I will have more to say about later).

Scientists now predict that people must either plant billions of trees to convert the excess CO2 into wood or stop producing so much carbon dioxide. If we don’t do either, ocean acidity will more than double in the next 40 years.

But how bad could that be?

Well, in the last 20 million years ocean acidity has never changed at a rate any faster than 1/100th of that rate. Life has no mechanisms to cope with such rates of change.
One of the benefits of the 21st session of The Conference of The Parties (COP) currently taking place in Paris is that several independent organizations seem to be starting to consolidate their efforts—a step that seems bound to give them greater impact. Of particular promise is the recently announced Tapestry of Hope, representing 1700 local service projects that combine Jane Goodall’s powerful Roots and Shoots programs (now operating in more than 130 countries) with Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue (which specifies 46 Hope Spots—each being an area critical to ocean health).

When Drs. Goodall and Earle announced this important initiative Sylvia Earle noticed that the agreement the COP was discussing failed even to mention ocean acidification—a rather strange omission, I thought, given that ocean acidification may just be a more immediate and all-encompassing threat to life on earth than global warming is, simply because it may reach lethal levels sooner (it is already high enough so that such key species as corraline algae, staghorn coral, pteropods and oysters are unable in some areas to get carbonate ions to precipitate out of solution and that means they cannot form their shells or coral skeletons that they need to protect and enable their lives.

It is clear enough that life on land will take a terrible hit from global warming, but thousands of species will nevertheless probably survive by moving to higher ground or expanding their ranges into the polar seas where the water can be counted on to remain cool, even when the oceans warm overall, simply because polar waters will continue to lose heat during the dark months of winter.

The acidity of the seas, on the other hand, will inexorably increase over time, worldwide. This means that neither the polar oceans nor any other part of the seas will represent a Coventry where the levels of acidification can be counted on to remain low enough for life to persist.

All in all, the massive increase in CO2 from burning fossil fuels produces two quite separate effects on ocean life. But the time it takes for the oceans to become dangerously acidic seems to be shorter than the time it takes them to become dangerously warm. In general, seriously consequential acidity appears to take decades while seriously consequential warming appears to take much longer before it exerts a comparably destructive effect on ocean life.

In each case these rates depend on the intensities at which different species are affected—a subject about which there is very little information. However the fact remains that the time it takes for heating to affect species negatively may be significantly longer than the time it takes to see similar damage from acidification.

But the key point here is that although both are triggered by increasing CO2, warming and acidification are very different processes and it would be naive to assume that the rates at which their effects will cause problems for ocean life should be the same. They can be expected to affect different species and different ecosystems after different delays and therefore should be considered separately.

In summary: I believe that the most imminent threat we face may very well not be global warming but the acidification of the oceans, simply because acidification seems to be causing serious mischief to ocean life sooner.

If that it turns out to be true I would not be surprised if the most serious problem our species now faces is ocean acidification, not global warming.

© Roger Payne
Dec 9, 2015

Dr. Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

Japan’s Latest Move, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

The recent sudden departure by Japan for the Antarctic is a particularly grim development on several counts. In spite of the ruling by the International Court of Justice in the Hague ordering Japan to cease their “Scientific Whaling Program” because it does not qualify as scientific research, they unilaterally awarded themselves a quota of 330 minke whales and slipped their moorings and left.

The quota they gave themselves is a third of what they took last time they went whaling in the Antarctic. 330 is clearly an arbitrary round number that has no possible scientific justification, particularly in light of the fact that when the zero quota came into effect Japan argued vigorously for increasing the numbers of whales they killed—claiming that they needed larger sample sizes to produce valid results. That argument was their response to criticism of their “research” proposals by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which reviewed their proposals every year (and rejected their proposals every year). In doing so, one of the things that the committee discussed was that there was already so much data of the kind Japan proposed to take that regardless of what those data showed the sample size would be so small it couldn’t make a valid difference to the conclusions one could already draw from the much larger existing dataset that dated back to the commercial whaling era.

In every year the Scientific Committee recommended to the Commission that it ask Japan not to issue a permit to its whalers and in every year the Commission complied with that recommendation by formally asking Japan not to issue a permit to its whalers. However, every year Japan went ahead and issued a permit to its whalers anyway.

In spite of this grim history and the fact that the recent International Court of Justice ruling saying that Japan’s “scientific research” did not meet the standards of scientific research, Japan has now added to its shame by once again awarding itself a permit in order to re-institute its non-scientific, “scientific whaling.” And having done so slipping its moorings without fanfare, and vanishing over the horizon in the direction of the Antarctic.

The strongest evidence that there is no improved science in the offing but only further subterfuge comes from the fact that by asking for a third as many whales this season as she took in her last hunting season, Japan’s tacit argument is that even smaller sample sizes are important—an argument that runs counter to her earlier claims.

I would like to know whether there is any limit to the willingness of Japan’s whalers to ignore the norms of science? I have always assumed that honesty must have a lower limit below which you cannot go—a point where there is no further truth available that can be removed—an absolute zero of honesty. Have the whalers figured out a way to go below that point? If so is there any limit to their tolerance for shame. Is it perhaps infinite?

– Roger Payne

Dr. Roger Payne, Founder and President of Ocean Alliance, has been the leading proponent of non-invasive whale research for over 45 years.

Video Highlights of our SnotBot Patagonia Expedition

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Over the last six months there has been a lot of talk and a lot of press about our innovative research drone SnotBot.  The million-dollar question then is, “Does SnotBot work?”  Watch the video below, and you decide.

The camera we used to guide us to the whale and position us over the blow holes was recording all the time.  Not only did we capture a lot of snot, we also captured totally unique footage, including a very precious moment between a mother and calf right whale.

Thanks again to our Kickstarter backers and other donors who helped make this possible!  Please consider making a donation to Ocean Alliance today, on #GivingTuesday, at

Iain Kerr: Update #2 from the Maldives

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Day 4 in the Maldives. We have been traveling down the Maldive Island chain, and today we will reach our last stop and the last (occupied) island in the Maldives: Huvadhu Atoll. I will fly out of here on Monday & then back to the USA on Tuesday. Since we landed in the capital Island Male, we have visited Vaava Atoll, Meemu Atoll, Laama Atoll and North Huvaghu Atoll. Yesterday we had a pretty rough ocean passage lasting about 9 hours between Laamu & Huvadhu Atoll – it was in this deepwater channel that the RV Odyssey found the most abundance of whales in 2003/2004. We saw a large group of dolphins, but the rough seas made any sort of whale watching tough going.


It has been a pretty amazing experience to be able to sit down and talk with this group of like-minded, passionate environmentalists every day. None of us have the same speciality (whales, turtles, plastics, clean oceans, education) but everyone has an enormous passion for our oceans. One of the hardest parts of my job (after fundraising) is reviewing stories & science from my friends, associates and media from around the world – stories and data that speak to the constant onslaughts that humanity is inflicting on our oceans. While it is critically important for us at Ocean Alliance to understand what the problems are and who is doing what – this really can get overwhelming and depressing at times. So to be in the Maldives surrounded by some of the most pristine oceans in the world with such a powerful group of activists and environmentalists is definitely an uplifting experience. I will certainly be returning home with renewed enthusiasm.

If you have a moment put these names into Google and read about the remarkable achievements of these Parley Ocean Ambassadors:

Kahi Pacarro – Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii
Christian Miller – Photographer (Nat Geo underwater photographer of the year 2014).
Emily Penn – Founder and director of Pangaea Exploration
Mike Long – Director of Operations, Parley for the Oceans. Maldives Expedition leader.
Shaahina Ali – Photojournalist & Environmental educator.
Steve Richardson – Adidas Group
Ann Schultz – Ocean Adventurer & nurse.

Not on this trip but on our minds: Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans.

Last night we watched a very humbling and educational film on the early history of Greenpeace called ‘How to Save the World’ (this film has not yet been released). I had forgotten that the first pre Greenpeace campaign was against a nuclear test in the Aleutian Islands. Robert Hunter said, “This test is not just an offense to humanity, nuclear testing it is an offense to nature”. It was after this campaign then that the two philosophies: Green & Peace came about. Greenpeace is now perhaps one of the most recognized environmental brands in the world.


As you can see from Christian Miller’s photos, our last anchorage is spectacular & we do not have to look far for wildlife.  As we finished dinner, we had a visit from a nurse shark (my iPhone photo), and we had time for a snorkel this morning.

Shark Visit

I have 3 more days to learn all I can from these extraordinary people. I will do my best to keep you posted on our progress.

From South Huvadhu Atoll, Maldives – I wish you all well.


Iain Kerr Reporting from the Maldives

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Currently I am in the Maldive Islands on an expedition put together by Parley for the Oceans. Ocean Alliance’s Research Vessel Odyssey was in the Maldive Islands in 2003 & 2004 (see whale sightings chart below) as part of our 5 1/2 year global circumnavigation to collect baseline data on the distribution, concentrations and effects of environmental toxicants in the world’s oceans. I never made it to the Maldives for either of the Odyssey’s visits, but heard nothing but good reports about them from the Odyssey crew.

Odyssey Maldives
I am aboard an 80 ft powerboat called The Dive-Master with a pretty incredible crew of ocean advocates, film makers and scientists. I am aboard as part of a program called The Parley Ocean School. This is another aspect of Parley’s collaborative mindset in which creative people from all aspects of life get together to share their experiences and work for solutions…in Parley’s own words: To raise awareness and to collaborate on projects that can end the destruction of the magic universe below us: Our Oceans. We have another vessel traveling with us with more than 20 people from Adidas. I will find out the exact number before the end of the trip, but between the Adidas folks and our group we represent at least 12 nationalities. The Adidas folks have come to learn about, experience, and then work for ocean conservation.

As one of Parley’s ocean ambassadors, I am giving a series of talks during the week and either leading or participating in a number of workshops. I gave my first talk ‘Why Whales’ today – the boat was underway and I was on my 5th slide during which I say – I wish people would not talk about whales and dolphins – dolphins are small toothed whales! As soon as I said this (I was standing looking over the heads of the audience) I saw dolphins racing towards the bow of the boat. The talk was suspended for 10 minutes while we watched them cavort off the bow, and it certainly brought a new perspective to my whale talk.  Emily Penn, the founder and director of Pangaea Expeditions, then gave an amazing talk on her journey and work over the last 8 years. After lunch we all split up for an activity, dive, snorkel, paddle board. We then joined up on a deserted beach and spent a few hours doing a beach clean up.


I applaud Parley for putting this expedition together — a good blend of science, exposure to ocean wildlife, and getting our hands dirty — all in the name of Ocean Conservation.

From Laamu Atol in the Northern Indian Ocean – I wish you all well.

Iain Kerr

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #6: “Pack Your Bags, We Are Heading To Patagonia”

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

This update was written by John Graham, Ocean Alliance Robotics Coordinator.

It was less than one week ago today that I was standing on the seaside cliffs of Patagonia observing whales go by just below me. It feels very surreal to me to think back on the last two weeks as being more than just an amazing dream, but the photos I have from the trip provide me with proof that it was all very real. So let’s back up a little bit, back to August 25th. On that day I was at work when I got a text. No, THE text. The one that simply said “Pack your bags. We are going to Patagonia”. WHAT!!! Wait a minute. Where is Patagonia? (geography isn’t my strongest suit). Oh, Argentina. Oh, and we leave in less than 1 month. This is going to be awesome!

Fast forward about 3 weeks, 4 airports, 3 planes, 1 hotel, 4 cabs, 1 car rental, 3+ hours of driving, and more security checks than I could keep track of, and we have arrived in the small town of Puerto Piramides, Argentina. This is to be our home base for the next 2 weeks. It doesn’t take us long to convert our accommodations into what some would describe as a scene from a Spielberg movie in which drones have taken over our world. Well that’s what you get when you travel with 16 large cases of research equipment.

About Piramides: it is a wonderful little town whose main source of revenue is from whale watching. The people are very open and accepting of outsiders. Their patience even extended to my minuscule ability to speak Spanish. Most of my language training comes from my exposure in the healthcare field, but I don’t think asking if they are having any pain or need medication will get me very far. We managed to find a small restaurant called “Guanacos” that served up delicious meals and, more importantly, had wifi. Albeit the wifi was touch and go, and poor Iain would stay up late praying to the internet gods that the emails he painstakingly sent out, actually did go out. We witnessed a lot of the dreaded spinning wheel of computer progress that trip.

Every morning we would make the 45 minute drive down dirt and gravel roads to the whale camp. It was amazing to look around and see nothing but dry brush, sheep, and guanacos. (Side note: Guanacos are like llamas) Iain did his best to keep the anemic rental car on the route, all the while eating the morning’s meal of empanadas. I lost the challenge of “who can spot a guanacos first” game, so I had to unlock the 2 large wooden gates every morning that allowed us access to the whale camp.

The Camp: no modern conveniences; no electric except for the occasional generator to charge drone batteries; no running water except for collected rainwater used only for washing dishes. Very desolate and very beautiful. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides, this is what I would describe as my vision of Nirvana. The energy that is created from the union of sea, sky, and land is breathtaking. We are greeted by not only the science team from the whale camp but also by the sight of whales. Whales as near and as far as you can see. Breaching, tail lobbing, and most importantly to us, the nectar for which Snotbot thirsts for, whale blow!!!

The Whale Camp continues a long-running study of the southern right whale that Dr. Roger Payne started back in the ‘70s. Ocean Alliance conducts this study with the support and partnership of Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (ICB A hike up onto the cliffs high above the camp leads to the site at which a small outpost once stood on the edge overlooking the sea, which was the place where Roger & team would sit and observe whale behaviors. All that now remains is scattered debris, but the site still echoes of past optimism for a world that includes cetaceans playing a major role in the health of our planet. One can’t help but to feel that energy carrying over today. It was also very meaningful to be here with Iain at the location at which he and Roger first met.

The ICB crew at WHALE camp, led by Mariano Sironi, was one of the greatest group of dedicated oceanographic research staff I’ve ever met. Their eagerness to help with whatever task was placed before us was refreshing and much welcomed. Also, the camp may not possess any of today’s modern conveniences, but they sure do know how to cook with what they’ve got. I wasn’t going to return home any pounds lighter after Mariano’s bread pudding con Dulce de Leche.

We worked all day, every day, in the pursuit of succeeding in our missions. These included the collection of exhaled breath condensate from whales (aka SNOT), photogrammetry, and whale identification. It was slow going at first, but the team quickly adapted and devised a system that worked well and before you know it, we were putting our first samples into a minus 80 deg dewar (a giant vacuum flask) for preservation. It was both an honor and a thrill to be a part of such ground-breaking research technology.

The team consisted of Iain Kerr (team leader and primary drone pilot), Carolyn Miller (WHOI researcher and resident expert on the drone affectionately called “Archie”) and me (drone technician and backup pilot). We would take to the sea most days in a small inflatable Zodiac piloted by Marco, a guy that would do whatever was needed of him, which mostly consisted of the frequent pull starts of the boat’s aging and uncooperative outboard. Guys like Marco are a rare breed and my life is richer having had the opportunity to work along side of him.


Oh, I almost forgot to mention the famous outhouse. You would sit (as one does in an outhouse) leave the door open, and you would have the most spectacular view you’ve ever had while taking care of business. Talk about your perfect moments in time. Sadly, all future versions of this ritual will never be able to hold a candle to that point in time.

photo 5[6]

We set up a small workshop in the metal corrugated Quonset hut on the beach that usually would serve as the boat house. Here is where I was able to put all my skills learned while watching “MacGyver” to the test. When working in the field at such a remote location as this you learn quickly the value of preparing for the worst and making the most of what you have on hand. At one point we had run into an issue with one of the cameras on a drone. Some loose parts, a hacksaw, bits of wire and solder, and, of course, duct tape, and we were back up and running. We all proved our worth on this expedition, Iain flew near flawlessly, and Carolyn processed the specimens and data with the utmost of care. And I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the tireless work and emotional support of the Ocean Alliance staff that helped make this trek even possible.

photo 3[7]

I would have to say that being in a small boat and having huge whales swim just feet to inches right underneath me, was an experience like no other. I was never scared, more at peace than anything else. This comes in at a close second only to being soaked straight in the face by a curious juvenile checking out what the heck we were doing. His thought process must have been something like: “What? You want whale blow? I’ll give you whale blow!” Well, thanks and gesundheit!!! (see blog The whales are Laughing)


The hardest part of being away in such a remote part of the world is the lack of communication that I had with my wife. No cell phone, no texting, no landline, just the occasional emails that we would write to one another and hope the other receives it within a day or so. New technology has spoiled us with a sense of instant gratification, and we’ve lost sense of the importance of patience.

As I sit back and reflect upon my own personal journey, I can feel the warmth in my soul glowing at the memories and friendships made. All in all, I would consider it to be a very successful expedition. I consider myself truly blessed.

In the future, if I am ever asked to think of a “happy place” it will be a toss-up between the high cliffs of Patagonia or the outhouse with the million dollar view.


Intern Spotlight – April Almeida

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Name: April Almeida
Studied: Biology with a Marine option
Studied at: University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

What brought you to choose to study this subject?
I have grown up on the ocean and I have always been interested in Biology and how different organisms can live together. In seventh grade I had the pleasure of swimming with dolphins and learning more about their lives. From that day on I knew that I wanted to work with marine life and trying to make their environment better.

What have been your major tasks at Ocean Alliance so far?
My major tasks at Ocean Alliance have been organization of the office and helping with events.

What have you most enjoyed about working at Ocean Alliance?
I enjoy the people here and I enjoy the work that we do even though I have yet to actually start working on actual research.

What’s been your biggest challenge working at Ocean Alliance?
I feel that my biggest challenge working at Ocean Alliance has been learning about the buildings and being able to give people who walk in a nice tour. I feel like I don’t know enough about our buildings.

What have you learned about yourself and your subjects at Ocean Alliance?
I have learned that I am very quick to learn something if I am just thrown into it instead of being eased into it. For example, the baleen talk on the Seven Seas boat. I always knew that I had knowledge of baleen, but I didn’t know how much until I was put in the position of having to teach people about it.

What’s it like working for a non-profit compared to studying?
Working for a non-profit is more engaging than studying. I enjoy more hands on work than sitting at a desk and reading a textbook.

What’s your favorite marine mammal – and why?
My favorite marine mammal is the dolphin. This is because I find their intelligence intriguing and I always want to learn more about them. I also love how social they are.

What’s your favorite ocean film – and why?
My favorite ocean film is Dolphin Tales because it shows how some people are very willing to help animals in need and not give up on them no matter what.

What do you hope to become when you finish your studies?
I hope to go back to school to get my master’s in the near future and with that I hope to be able to teach people about what consequences our actions have on the ocean and work to give the creatures of the ocean a voice.

What are your hopes for the future as you look at our world today?
I hope that some day soon people will actually realize what harm they are doing to our planet and work to reverse the problem.

Producer of Documentary Film “Jane & Payne” Visits Gloucester

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Argentine filmmaker Dylan Williams recently visited the Paint Factory to share a private screening of his film “Jane & Payne” with our staff.  Back in October 2013, Dylan and fellow filmmaker Boy Olmi arranged an historic meeting between our founder Roger Payne and the noted primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall.  The two scientists have admired each other’s work for decades, but had never met in person before.  Both were approaching their 80th birthdays.

The meeting took place at the Whale Camp in Patagonia, Argentina that Roger had established in the 1970s.  The cameras were rolling to capture their meeting and their subsequent conversations, both alone at the camp and in front of an audience in Buenos Aires.  

Up until this week, Ocean Alliance staff had only seen the trailer, which you can watch here.  A free public screening of the complete film will be held at Woods Hole Historical Museum on October 13th.

“Jayne & Payne” is a poignant film that chronicles not only the noted scientists’ historic meeting, their mutual admiration, and their decades of accomplishments, but also their shared passion for using science and advocacy to preserve and improve life on our planet.  It provokes viewers to think about how they can contribute to helping the planet themselves.

Jane-and-Payne-2Coincidentally, our CEO Iain Kerr had just returned from the same Whale Camp in Patagonia, after conducting the first (and very successful) SnotBot field expedition.  Iain shared some of his dramatic footage from the expedition with Dylan.

In the top photo, Dylan presents Iain with a signed book of photographs that he and another photographer shot in the Argentine National Parks.  Dylan was accompanied by his nephew Christofer Schillachi, who is a Fishery Biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries in New Bedford.   Our staff had a fascinating conversation with Christofer about his work with clams.

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #5: “The whales are laughing!”

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

I have spent a lot of time in the field, working in over 20 countries more often than not trying to get close enough to animals (without disturbing them) to collect data, whether it be behavioral, health or physical samples for toxicology etc. Every now and then you have one of these special encounters that resets your perspective, reminds you that we are passengers on space ship earth and not the crew and that the passengers may get what they want, but not always in the way they expected.

We rented a 36 ft boat yesterday, with the idea of being able to spend a full day out on the water, with all of our drones, cameras, controllers, chargers, computers and our dry shipper (a container that has been primed with liquid nitrogen) to preserve our samples.

So 8 of us, consisting of the ICB team — including Marcy Uhart (an Argentine who works for UC Davis) — and the OA team, headed out to sea from the town of Puerto Madryn. Quite quickly we encountered a mother and calf, and we got our first snot sample of the day with Scottie and two photogrammetry samples (mother & calf) with Archie. We then worked for over 45 min to get a Snot Sample from an adolescent whale. It was down when the drone was up and left when we were right and so on and so on. But we were patient and persistent and we eventually got a viable sample. We then moved off about half a mile from the whale to go through some equipment checks and switch batteries etc when one of the crew said a whale was approaching the boat from the stern and it was the adolescent we had just sampled.

To be blunt, the whale swam right up to the boat and we were Snot Bombed (whale version of photo bombing), but in this case it included biological matter from whale lungs – we were repeatedly soaked with snot from a whale that was just feet from the boat, first from the side then from the stern. You may think that I am exaggerating here but there is a a photo below from Archie of the whale Snotting us. In the accompanying photos you can see John and I on the port side of the boat running the drone. Everyone else getting an eyeful. Mariano can be seen holding out a pole that alternated between a Petri dish and his Go Pro, as a result we have our biggest Snot sample yet and video looking down the blow hole during the blow. (I’ll post that video when we get back to the USA.)


After a 10min photo flight with Archie, I brought him back on board and I took out my own camera. Photos of the day were closeups – so close that you can see the individual cyamids on the whales head.

R whale chin
We need to take pause here and remember that we have spent almost two weeks down here focused on collecting snot, when we see a whale blow and we are not able to get to the whale we are frustrated – we have become a little Snot focused dare I say Snot obsessed and then a whale comes over to our boat and soaks us – be advised that whale breath in small quantities is great. In large quantities it is not that nice, I don’t think that they brush their baleen at night. In the space of 20 min we were all thoroughly Snotted and poor old Carolyn was having a real problem with all of her sterile equipment that was not so sterile any more. Also we could not motor away since the outboard engine was up so the whale would not hit it – so we had to sit it out or maybe Snot it out (sorry).

So why did the whale do this? We don’t know, but the best guess from Mariano is that the adolescent whales are bored and when they see something new just floating in the water they check it out, perhaps thinking that it is a new toy they can play with. After about 20 min when they realize how boring human boats can be they just go on they way and look for something more interesting. If we did not have the remarkable accompanying photos – this story would be hard to believe. It was certainly an amazing experience for the whole team, more than once we were eye to eye with an animal as big as our boat, it refocused all of us as to the importance of learning all that we can about these animals so that we can preserve them for ocean health and diversity and future generations.

As we reflect I guess it goes back to the old saying “be careful for what you wish for” or maybe just maybe… the whales are having a laugh at our expense.

From the VERY snotty skies of Patagonia – that’s how the Snot flies.

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #4: “It’s all about the Team”

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Key components of any effective research expedition are flexibility and adaptability. You plan a project, in our case at 43 degrees North with the goal of implementing it at 43 degrees South, and guess what? things don’t always go to plan. We had hoped to do a lot of data collection flying from the shore line, but for some reason the whales this year have decided to spend more time offshore – so the team jumps into a 13 foot 20 yr old zodiac with at 12 yr old two stroke outboard and off we go.

The drones to all intents and purposes are small computers, we also have a variety of transmitters and receivers on the boat (that are also small computers), and then small video displays so that we can have a First Person View of the action from the drone. This means that one good wave over the bow or one piece of equipment dropped onto the floor of the boat (which as much as we bail out is always wet) and the experiment is either over for the day or for the trip. Computers and salt water don’t work together period.

Even so we have been going out two or three miles from our camp every day to find whales. We are encountering 10 to 15 whales a day which is good, but we need to keep moving so we are not sampling the same whales all the time. At least twice the weather was fine when we left camp and then 3 or 4 hours later the winds pick up and we have been beating our way back to camp with equipment in our clothes and in waterproof cases. With all of this equipment onboard in a confined wet space we have been running to strict protocols to make everything work.

A start up flight might go like this:  Everyone in position (yes), Everyone ready to fly (yes) OK – Transmitter on, video & data screens on, calibrate gyros (throttle up and to the left), altitude hold engaged, position hold engaged, boat mode on, check all RC transmitter switches, start cameras on drone (hold as steady as you can so that the camera gyro matches the camera level with the horizon). Take a photo blank to check camera & video systems. Carolyn wipes down the collection arm (one more time) with alcohol and puts on the sterile petri dish. When we say we are ready to fly she takes the top off the petri dish. OK ready to fly, pick up drone and hold it above your head into the wind, remover petri dish cover. All clear (Yes) start engines, throttling up 3,2,1 fly. Start timer, where are the whales?

Find the drone

After a 12 to 20 min flight (depending on which drone we are flying) we fly back to the boat and either John or Mariano hand catch the drone (see photo). Then we hold the drone in place while Carolyn removes the petri dish which she puts into a sterile bag and a cooler.

We then look for the next group of whales and head toward them.
Since we are running two different scientific programs, we will often collect a few snot samples with our Yuneec Typhoon drone (Scottie) and then head back into shore and drop Carolyn off to process the samples. Mariano (Scientific Director of our Argentine partner ICB – Instituto Conservación Ballenas) will replace Carolyn and we will head out to do the Photogrammetry program with the WHOI drone Archie. When the weather is good we try to spend as much time on the water as we can.
The tidal range here is over 20 feet so on occasion we have come back to a huge beach in front of the camp – we lug all of our equipment back, return to the dingy and then the inflatable has to be broken down (remove engine, fuel tank etc etc) and then carried/ dragged back to camp.

Big tides
To spend all day in a small boat with 3 other people all the while juggling computers, salt water, drones, cameras & working with whales takes a lot of patience and a lot of energy. We have a great team here from ICB team member Marcos (who coaxes a 12 yr old outboard to life again and again) and always gets us into the best position to fly to the whales & the full shore support team courtesy of ICB. It has been hard work, but we are excited to be troubleshooting new technologies and trying to determine the best ways to make them work for science. How lucky we are to spend time with Right whales, make new friends and work to better understand and conserve the wild world.

Thank you to all of the team in Gloucester for supporting this expedition from our headquarters. I’m off to bed, up at 7:00 am tomorrow to catch the high tide.

And that’s how the Snot flies in Patagonia!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #3: “It’s all about the Snot”

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

It’s pretty incredible to be sitting in a small boat about half a mile off the Argentine coast with three friends surrounded by right whales and to be flying a drone.  I have been a RC enthusiast for most of my life, and it was just over 4 years ago that I had the idea to try and bring my hobby and work together.  I had been reading so much about military drones and advances in technology that I felt sure that there was something that could be done with these remarkable machines for the benefit of the wild world and ultimately humanity.

So here we are flying small drones over whales – today I did a total of thirteen flights, each flight lasting around 12 minutes.  I am flying a WHOI drone called Archie to conduct a Photogrammetry study (determine whale size and health through photos – see photo below), and of course flying our Yuneec drones to collect Snot.


This whole program is a bit of a logistical nightmare. There are so many things to do and check before you get in the boat. We are collecting scientific data, so we need all of the supporting data, latitude and longitude, time, length of flight, height, size of petri dish, animal type, calf, mother etc etc etc).  Flying from a 13 foot inflatable boat, we have to hand launch and recover the drones, so the launcher needs to have on a helmet, safety glasses and gloves. We do not want to contaminate any of the Snot we collect, so our scientist Carolyn from WHOI thoroughly cleans the drone beforehand and wears a mask and gloves.  The launcher also wears a mask so as not to breath or sneeze onto the collection plates.

When we are about 100 to 200 feet from a whale, we stop the boat’s outboard engine and take up flight positions.  I go to the back and sit on the outboard motor, John goes to the front and gets ready to launch the drone, Carolyn is beside him and Marcos keeps an eye on the drone when it is in the air at all times and also drives the boat.  When everyone says that they are ready, I turn on the remote control, John then turns on the drone (keeping it as level as possible so that the camera, gyroscopes and GPS calibrate correctly).  When that is done, John attaches a 2 to 3 foot carbon fibre pole to the bottom of the drone (this pole has a adjustable angle platform at the bottom onto which we put a 6 inch diameter petri dish).

When we see a whale on the surface, Carolyn attaches the petri dish to the platform; she puts one half facing down and the other half facing up.  We are now in sterile conditions, so we take flight as soon as possible.  I fly our Yuneec Typhoon (that we now call Scottie) towards the whale standing up in the dingy, when we are about 50 feet away and I can see the whale in the FPV (first person view) camera screen, I sit down and often put a blanket over my head to keep out the light.  When I reach the whale flying about 25 feet above the water I tilt the camera straight down, when the camera is pointing down we can see our collecting plate (see photo below). I orientate the drone so that the head is straight ahead and I fly up the body towards the head.  When I am above the blow hole with the camera pointing straight down, I drop down to about 12 feet and hover above the blow hole.

Over blow hole

This is when life gets really difficult.  If the wind is blowing the snot can go one way, because of gull harassment some of the whales arch their bodies to keep them underwater (so the seagulls can’t peck their skin) in this case their blows shoot forward, some shoot the blows aft and others straight up one time and then sideways the next time.  Since we have time to stay about the whale, we can sit through a few blows to get the feel for the best place to position the drone.  When you get a blow you know it, thanks to the down looking camera I can see the blow shoot snot straight onto the collection petri dish.

Snot Petri

If it is a robust sample I fly straight back to the boat, if not I try to get a couple more blows on the plate before returning to the boat.  John hand catches Scottie (still wearing a mask) and holds the drone while Carolyn removes and seals up the collection plate, which she puts into a sterile zip lock bag and then into a cooler (in case we collect more snot before going back to camp). Typically our flights are no longer than about 12 minutes, and after collecting snot samples from two individuals we like to go back to shore so Carolyn can process them (more from Carolyn on this later).

In a later post I will talk more about what we have learnt with regards to flying drones over whales and what drones have worked best for us.  We brought down 3 different drones and my favorite is not what I thought it would be. That’s it for now from the Patagonia Team; more soon.

And that’s how the Snot flies!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #2

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

The weather forecast said no wind today so we got up at 6:00 am this morning and rushed out to whale camp. We have bought some great empanadas the night before and we ate them on the drive out. Alas when we got to whale camp just before 7:00 am the whole area was covered in fog. We could hear whales blowing and snorting very near by but we could not see them. We sent one of our Yuneec drones into the fog in case it was clearer offshore but even though we went out over 1000 ft everything was socked in – we got a very damp drone back. So we serviced and cleaned our equipment (& read manuals) until just after 10:30 am when the fog burnt off.

Fog at Camp

The good news is that we than had some GREAT Snot Bot flights, we did not get Snot, the whales we were working with seemed to be resting and exhaled very slowly – I can say that because we were literally looking down the blowhole – See photo, you can see the snot collector Petri dish. It was great practice to see if we could hold position over a whales blowhole and we are very optimistic and excited for the work ahead.

Later in the day we flew the WHOI drone (Archie) to get some photogrammetry images. We managed to photograph 11 animals, 5 mother calf pairs and one solo whale. I fly watching the video feed from the drone and have a black cloth over my head to keep the sun out. It was pretty exciting today when tracking the whale I saw our small inflatable boat come into the image. The whales seemed curious and came over to check the boat out, you can see that the engine is not running on our dingy nor are we making way – the whales came to us. I am under the back cloth with John Graham, Marcos our ICB team member and Carolyn are also visible in the boat.


From the Snot Bot Patagonia team – that’s how the Snot flies!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #1

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments


Dear Friends,

We made it to Patagonia with the Snot Bots – thanks to all of you who supported this project.  I am traveling with Carolyn Miller from WHOI and John Graham from Gloucester.  My job will be to pilot SnotBot, Carolyn is dealing with the data and John is keeping everything running and is the back up pilot.  The trip down was pretty brutal with a day flight from Boston to Miami, an overnight flight from Miami to Buenos Aires and then a 5:20 am flight from Buenos Aires to Trelew which necessitated a 3:00 am wake up call.  We are about 42.5 degrees South and 64.3 degrees West.  We are working out of our camp in Argentina where Ocean Alliance has been conducting aerial surveys of Southern right whales since 1971.

We had to get some friends to come to the airport to meet us with their truck because we have a total of 16 bags.  It was fun getting them through customs… The whale camp in Gulfo San Jose is very remote, a small generator (only on when yo need it), no phone no internet and 40 min to a small town with minimal supplies (Piramides).  So we brought about every spare part and tool that we thought we would need (and then some).  After checking into a small apartment in Piramides (no phone, internet or comfy chair).  We went out to whale camp and worked on setting up the drones in the old boat house until about 8:30 pm, we got back to Piramides at 10:00pm and then ate dinner.  A very long day.

Next morning we were up at 7:00 and went back out to camp, alas the temperatures have been in the 50’s with rain and wind speeds up to 20 Knots. Not conducive for flying or collecting Snot or photos.

Patagonia remains one of the most amazing meeting places of land, sea and wildlife.  We have taken on a challenge with the hope of conducting the Snot Bot & Photogrammetry program in 12 days – but providing the weather gives us a break we will make it happen!

We are very grateful for the support that we have been given by the electronic flight company Yuneec – we have two Typhoon drones and one Tornado.  I was flying the Tornado today in 20 knots of wind and while I was feeling a bit unsure the Tornado flew like a dream.  Our snot collection devices are petri dishes on a long pole that hangs beneath the drone.


“As I prepare the research drones for their daily mission in the makeshift workshop on the beach, I am lucky to have a spectacular view of the whales and its hard not to be moved by the nurturing and playful behavior of these giant sentinels of the sea”  John Graham


“While others told me that Patagonia was spectacular its hard to comprehend the beauty and wildlife diversity without seeing it first hand.  Yes we have been fighting the weather, but I am confident that we will soon be very busy, in the meantime I am excited to be here and be a part of this program.”  Carolyn Miller


We are all set up here and ready to go.  Tomorrow we will be up at 6:00 am in the hope of catching some calm early morning weather. Keep your fingers crossed.  As soon as we have data and photos we will be posting them.  Watch this space!


Roger Payne Receives Sierra Club’s 2015 EarthCare Award

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments


Dr. Roger Payne has received the Sierra Club’s 2015 International EarthCare Award for his unique contribution to international environmental protection and conservation. The award was presented in San Francisco on September 12.  The Sierra Club noted Dr. Payne’s many accomplishments over the past 50 years, as well as his ongoing research and advocacy, in its news release on the award:

Payne is perhaps best known for his discovery (with Scott McVay) that humpback whales sing songs. One of his National Geographic magazine articles contained a record of whale sounds for which 10.5 million copies were printed — still the largest single print order in the history of the recording industry.

Payne has led more than 100 expeditions to all oceans and studied every species of large whale in the wild. He pioneered many of the benign research techniques now used throughout the world to study free-swimming whales, and has trained many of the current leaders in whale research, both in America and abroad.

In 1971, Payne founded Ocean Alliance, which strives to increase public awareness of the importance of whale and ocean health through research and public education. A major project of Ocean Alliance was the Voyage of the Odyssey, a five-year program designed to gather the first-ever baseline data on levels of synthetic contaminants throughout the world’s oceans, ending in 2005. The crew of the Odyssey collected more than 900 tissue samples from sperm whales in all of the world’s oceans and visited 20 countries to speak with thousands of students, teachers, government officials and members of the general public.

Still fully active in this, his 80th year, Payne has recently written a Declaration of Interdependence, modeled on the 1776 Declaration of Independence which he is asking people to sign. He hopes it will encourage people everywhere to demand that their government recognizes the critical importance of granting rights and values to non-human species.

“We are extremely pleased to honor Dr. Payne for his dedication to whale and ocean conservation. I can recall listening to his recordings of whale songs many years ago, and I know that the songs and his work have inspired many others to recognize the importance of marine mammals and oceans to our efforts to care for the Earth and its wild places,” said Richard Cellarius, Sierra Club International Vice President.

Payne’s many previous honors include a Knighthood in the Netherlands, a MacArthur Fellowship, an Emmy for Best Interview: One on One with Charlie Rose, and a Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). His films have received seven major awards and two Emmy nominations.

In the photo above, Sierra Club International VP Richard Cellarius presents Roger Payne with the EarthCare Award, with Executive Director Michael Brune looking on.

Dispatch from Patagonia: 2015 Southern Right Whale Survey

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

We received the following dispatch from John Atkinson on Friday, September 11.  John has been the primary aerial photographer for our annual survey of Southern Right Whales since 1988, and has participated in numerous expeditions and documentaries worldwide.

Hi all, John Atkinson here, writing to you from Peninsula Valdez in Patagonia, Argentina, We have now finished our 2015 annual aerial survey of the southern Right whales that gather in nearby waters to mate and give birth to their calves. This is an ongoing survey that was started by Dr. Roger Payne back in 1970.

Our survey was a tremendous success. This year we flew with a new pilot, Peter Dominguez, and he deserves a big shout out for getting us up and over the whales and back on the ground safely. Also, thanks to everyone in the offices and all of the volunteers in Gloucester at the Ocean Alliance and at the Institute de Conservacion de las Ballenas in Buenos Aires for all of the advance preparations and organization.

In the photo above is a whale that we photographed, and if you look closely, you can see the baby alongside the mother.

In the photo below is our aerial survey team, which includes, from the left, Dr. Mariano Sironi, myself, our pilot Peter and Marcos Ricciardi. Not included here is our other member of this year’s aerial team, Alejandro Fernandez. Thanks again to everyone for keeping us safe and for loving the whales as much as we do.


In closing, I want to say that today, September 11th, is Mariano’s birthday so Feliz Cumpleanos (Happy birthday in Spanish) Mariano!!

Filmmaker Robert Nixon Visits the Paint Factory

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments
On Tuesday long time friend and film maker Robert Nixon visited our headquarters on the Gloucester waterfront.  Robert recently finished a seminal documentary Mission Blue with one of our board members, Sylvia Earle.  Bob brought two young explorers who are assisting Sylvia on a series of expeditions to film America’s unknown underwater wonders, Finn Kennedy and Bobby Nixon.  Finn and Bobby toured the site with me as we talked about (on camera) a host of different ocean environmental concerns.  We even got a chance to fly SnotBot and test SnotShot. The resulting documentary “Blue Centennial” seeks to inspire the establishment of some of America’s underwater wonders as blue national parks.
“Bobby & Finn had a clear interest and understanding of the problems facing our oceans,” said CEO Iain Kerr.  “It was a real pleasure to meet and talk with them.”
Finn’s brother Conner Kennedy joined Ocean Alliance’s Research Vessel Odyssey as a crew member in the Gulf of Mexico in 2012, as we worked to better understand the effects of the Deep Horizon disaster on marine mammals.
Scaled[33] FinnBobbyIKSnotBot-Scaled

Spotlight on Interns: Katie Gilbert

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Hosting interns at Ocean Alliance is hugely important to our mission! The work we do simply could not continue if we didn’t nurture a new crop of future scientists, researchers and engineers into the world each year to solve the pressing challenges faced by our oceans.

So in that light, we thought it fitting that each of our interns gets introduced to you and a chance to shine in a spotlight, and as a thanks for all their hard work, with hopefully a bit of a leg-up into their new career. We start off our series with Katie Gilbert.


Name: Katie Gilbert

Studied: Received B.S. in Marine Science Concentration Marine Biology this past May (2015)

Studied at:  University of New England in Biddeford, ME


What brought you to choose to study this subject?

 My family would take trips to the beaches of Cape Cod and southern Maine, where as a kid, I would wade through tide pools exploring the creatures they held. I just loved exploring and spending my time by the water, I was very curious and wanted to know more about it.


Also, around the fifth grade, my family went to Discovery Cove in Florida, where I was given the experience to swim with Bottlenose dolphins.  This is one of my most memorable experiences where I was so moved and amazed by these wonderful creatures.  From then on, I knew I wanted to study the ocean and the life within it, and someday like to find a career in the field of marine biology.


What have you accomplished in your studies thus far?

During my 4 years at the University of New England I got as involved as I could in my major, research, and social activities/clubs on campus. Some major accomplishments include:


I spent the last three years as a research assistant in Dr. Kathryn Ono’s lab, where research focused on pinniped behavior, ecology, and conservation.  I started out helping with a graduate student’s thesis project, by analyzing some of her data and photos of Grey seal pups from Muskeget Island. Then from their I started my own undergraduate research project by conducting a study on the Diet Composition of Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) in New England from Scat Analysis. Along with the articulation of an Adult Male Grey Seal Skeleton where the completed skeleton is hung for display in the Marine Science Center at UNE. I have also been out in the field on a field research trip to Muskeget Island (Jan. 2014) where I was a participant of research effort to collect Grey seal scat for my research project and help with other research efforts while on the Grey seal breeding island. 


I also spent some time volunteering and gaining experiences in Marine Mammal/Animal Care, where I volunteered at the Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation Center (MARC) (2013-2014).   I received training for Animal Care volunteer at MARC to aid in the rehabilitation and release of Harbor, Harp, and Grey seals and Loggerhead sea turtles. 

During the school year I volunteered one 4 hour shift a week to help with feeds, food & medicine prep, weighing & recording animal notes/records, restraining, cleaning rooms & pools, basic water quality testing, aiding in sea turtle x-rays, and release of cleared seals at beaches. 

Then I spent time educating the public and school groups about MARC and marine mammals, being a Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation Center (MARC) Docent (2014) facilitating educational tours to school and other groups of the role and function of the MARC facility.


This last year at UNE, I presented my research on “Diet Composition of Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) in New England from Scat Analysis” and the articulation of the Grey Seal skeleton at a few symposiums. The presentations included: the Northeast Undergraduate Research and Development Symposium (NURDS), (March 7 & 8, 2015) and University of New England Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Symposium, (Fall 2014) where I did a Poster Presentation for both. I also presented at the University of New England’s College of Arts and Sciences Student Research and Scholarship Symposium on May 1st, 2015 where I did an oral presentation on the same research stated above.



What’s been your major tasks at Ocean Alliance so far?

  • Helping with Proposal/Research for a whale education box for Surprise Ride Organization
  • Painting the wooden Sperm whale cut-out, to have on display at the Kick starter event and to use for future OA events
  • Making/Designing a Robotics Brochure for OA
  • Making the Kickstarter/Snot Bot Flyer to go onto the 7 Seas Whale Watch Boat
  • Helping Andy test pH probes to determine which was best for Ocean Sentinels Project, and to help edit and read over the drafts of documents for this project.


What have you most enjoyed about working at Ocean Alliance?

Meeting and getting to know the staff and other interns, and getting the opportunity to help with all the projects.  It’s great knowing that the help each of us interns provide goes towards a larger cause to help the whales and the health of the oceans.  For example, helping with the Kickstarter is helping to raise money and awareness for the Snot Bot research, which is future and innovative research.



What have you learned about yourself and your subjects at Ocean Alliance?


What’s it like working for a non-profit compared to studying?

There are similarities between the two, when doing research it takes a lot of time/commitment, dedication, patience, and background work to gather an understanding and knowledge on the topic of research and working at a non-profit I feel it is very similar; it takes patience, time/commitment and hard-work, and background work to get to the point where projects and results happen.


What’s your favorite marine mammal – and why?

This is a very tough and loaded question, especially since I have spent the last few years researching and taking classes that focused on marine mammals. I find all marine mammals interesting to study and learn more about. All have characteristics and behaviors that amaze me. I have to break this question down by saying my favorite Pinniped is the Grey Seal because I have spent the last few years studying and conducting a research project on Grey Seal diet composition in New England. I also helped at a Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation Center and spent time helping to rehabilitate a few Grey seals which was a wonderful opportunity to help with to heal them and release them back to the wild again.  My favorite Cetacean is the Spinner or Atlantic White-sided dolphin, because I love their morphology, and how dolphins are very social animals, which have many behaviors above or under the surface.  


What’s your favorite ocean film – and why?

I like almost every ocean themed film that I have seen, they all have some element to them that I like whether it is just a fun, cute movie like Finding Nemo, to movies that have a message to show the public awareness on an ocean issue, like Dolphin Tale which shows the side of marine animal rehabilitation. I even enjoy documentary movies where I can learn more about life in the ocean, I have watched many over the years at school. 



What do you hope to become when you finish your studies?

I have finished my undergraduate studies, so this summer I became a 7 Seas Whale Watch Intern and Ocean Alliance Intern to gain more experiences in the marine mammal realm and build my resume. I plan to go back to school to get my graduate degree in Marine Biology next fall (Fall 2016) after this gap year, and then my overall career goals are to get a job in marine sciences preferably with marine mammals whether it is working in a research lab, rehabilitation, in the field, or at an aquarium. 


What are your hopes for the future as you look at our world today?

Hope to make the future a better place, and to help learn and research more about the ocean to educate all and help to make a difference. To educate others on the ocean and life within it and how we need to protect and cherish what we have in our vast oceans. 

The Snotbots Will Fly – Thanks to YOU!

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Dear Friends (because that is what you now are),

Roger Payne, staff & volunteers were at our offices at about 1:00pm August 25th as we watched our Kickstarter campaign meet, and then exceed, its goal. The whole room just burst with applause and excitement. It’s been quite a while since our emotions have been this high.

A problem with developing new ways of doing things is that many of us don’t like change, we like what we are comfortable with and that is often the familiar or the old. So we cannot thank you enough for putting us onto this road of discovery that we have no doubt will benefit whales, oceans and humanity.

We hope that you will stay with us now as this work unfolds. We bought my ticket to Argentina (leaving September 19th) a couple of weeks ago, so we can now stop panicking. We will be sending updates from the field including photos. We want to try to do a live link/live broadcast from the field but I am not sure if we will be able to get an internet connection from the beach in Patagonia. As backers you will have exclusive access to this footage & screen saver photos. They are going to be spectacular I guarantee it. I also hope that some of you might want to look at the footage and or behavior we document with a keen eye – as we develop the program we hope to be able to open source some of the data that we collect so that we can make the most of this unique collaborative effort.

Thank you all from the depths of our souls and the depths of the oceans, each and everyone one of you have made a difference to the world that we share today, because you stepped up to the plate and said “I want to do more – I want to play an active role in finding solutions” – Yes thanks to you the SnotBots will Fly. For this and for your enthusiasm we cannot thank you enough.

Dr. Iain Kerr
CEO, Ocean Alliance

An Important Message about Seismic Testing from CEO Iain Kerr

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

10 Reasons You’ll Feel Good Joining Team Snotbot

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Our Snotbot Kickstarter is launched and in full swing. It’s an exciting opportunity for Ocean Alliance to again make a splash in the natural world, with drones! And here are some of the reasons why backing us on Kickstarter will make you feel like a million bucks.


  1. It’s tax deductible! We are a 501c3 nonprofit, and your pledge, minus the fair market value of the reward, is deductible on your taxes like any other charity donation! This means you can feel even better about giving.
  2. You help Gloucester stay on the innovation map. Our hometown of Gloucester, MA is undergoing a transition – for centuries, we were a busy fishing port until depletion of stocks  led to a sharp decline in the industry. But Gloucester is not only surviving, it’s blossoming into a new marine-engineering and technology friendly place to run an organization – and we want to continue our goal of turning the iconic Paint Factory into a world-class marine education and research center.
  3. Snotbot is tied in with our robotics program!  On the grounds of our Paint Factory headquarters, we have a robotics laboratory made out of an old shipping container! We provide a weekly robotics meetup called Paint Factory Flyers, and we aim to provide every kid who wants to be involved a way to make their own RC plane, whether or not they have the financial means. Often, we have many children (as young as 6) and teens flying drones in the field! We love getting kids involved with STEM.
  4. You’re helping the whales. Whales are amazing, smart animals – but they’re massively sensitive to ocean acoustics. We aim to see what is stressing them – and in the case of the endangered Southern Right Whale, they can’t afford to be stressed out.
  5. We prove that drones have a positive use. Sometimes, drones and quadcopters are misunderstood or maligned in print. We are here to prove that they have a positive and necessary use in marine sciences and in all types of research.
  6. You get cool stuff in return! We have everything from hoodies, bandanas, and t shirts to interesting rewards like flexidisc recordings of whale songs from the 1970’s!
  7. We are able to quickly do research in a fast-changing climate – this isn’t a five year project, where climate change will outpace our research. We can do this soon, so that the data we get can be used as quickly as possible. If we can
  8. You Make Patrick Stewart happy! He has been a great friend to Ocean Alliance, and has even come on a research expedition! He generously gave us his time for this video, and he also loves drones, and Snotbot!
  9. You provide jobs. Locally, Ocean Alliance provides jobs to the Gloucester area, and during our expeditions, we’ll also need additional help. Keeping STEM jobs local is a huge goal for us, and with Snotbot, we’re on our way.
  10. You become part of the Snotbot team. We will bring you updates before, during, and after our expeditions – with stunning ocean photography caught from drones. We’ll regale you with stories and interact with our backers whenever we can. This is a great opportunity for families to follow a STEM-based excursion and show the next generation that science and engineering are fun and engaging.

Take the Plastic Free July Challenge!

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Here’s a sobering fact: in the first 10 years of this century, more plastic was produced than the entire last century.

And apart from the small amount of plastic which has been incinerated, every piece of plastic which was ever produced still exists on earth somewhere.

This unsustainable and alarming trend has led to some necessary introspection – what are we, as individuals, putting into the plastic waste stream? What is our negative contribution to the environment? It can be hard to measure when we, as consumers, are conditioned to accept a single-use plastic bag for all our purchases, expect our retail items surrounded by plastic packaging, and single-use water, juice, and soda bottles line the walls of every convenience store in America.

This is why a group of concerned folks at the Western Metropolitan Regional Council (WMRC) in Perth, Western Australia started the Plastic Free July Challenge locally 2011. By last year’s challenge, participation had grown to 14,000 individuals, schools, businesses and organizations from 69 countries.

What, exactly, is the Plastic Free July Challenge? The website explains:

The challenge is quite simple. Attempt to refuse single-use plastic during July. “Single-use” includes plastic shopping bags, plastic cups, straws, plastic packaging…basically anything that’s intended only to be used once and then discarded. If refusing ALL single-use plastic sounds too daunting this time, try the TOP 4 challenge (plastic bags, bottles takeaway coffee cups & straws).

The rules

  1. Attempt to refuse single-use plastic during July.
  2. Remember it’s not going to be easy! It is a challenge, not a competition so don’t worry about being perfect.
  3. Collect any unavoidable single-use plastic you buy. Keep in a dilemma bag and share it with us at the end of the challenge.
  4. It’s up to you regarding how long you participate. You might decide to go plastic-free for a day, a week, a month or longer! However long you choose will still make a contribution.


Our Social Media Manager, KT Toomey, is going to try the challenge. Check up on her progress, and her bag of shame, on our Facebook page this month!

Paint Factory Flyers Robotics Club Heads Outdoors!

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

As previously mentioned, Ocean Alliance has a pretty nice robotics lab (in a modified shipping container) here at the Paint Factory that we use for developing oceanographic research tools. We thought it would be a little greedy to keep such a wonderful resource to ourselves, so we started a hobby club about 8 months ago. Through this club, we are not looking to replicate what is going on in the local school programs – as but add to them and have fun while developing skills. Key words are Exploration, Discovery, Collaboration and Application. I hope that one day the kids who are involved now will run the club, mentor younger kids and develop new research tools for Ocean Alliance.

At its most basic level the club is trying to develop 4 skill areas:

1. Construction – making and repairing models/machines.

2. Soldering – wiring and connecting circuit boards

3. Programming – a lot of the flying machines we use have computers that need to be told what to do. I had a programming problem with one of my drones that was explained and sorted out for me by a 14 yr old last week.

4. Flying – we have 3 simulators, that can be used for plane, boat, quad copter & car simulations.

Once kids have qualified on the simulators they can then fly our machines. They can of course fly their own machines any time they want. Currently club members are building radio controlled foam airplanes (about a foot in length). Older kids are working on the electronics packages, younger kids  are working on the planes. Right now we have about 50 people on our mailing list, which means that in average that about 20 people come to our weekly club meetings. Usually, we have 6 or 7 adults and the rest are children. We call the club members the PF Flyers.


Here are the foamie kits that we are currently building.We are OK to have kids bring in their own equipment to work on, or they can work on new projects at the club Thanks to a grant from the Applied Material Foundation, we are able to provide all of the tools and materials that the kids need for the club free of charge – there is no fee or cost to join the club. Participants can keep the plane they build but we do not give them the RC controller or receiver (cost of $150 and up). When at club activities, we do loan out controllers and receivers. Participants can come to the club for 30 minutes and run a simulator, or stay the full 2 hours and build a plane, drone, car or boat. There is no maximum or minimum participation – members just need to bring their enthusiasm.


Here is an example of the drone work that we do as oceanographers. With the great weather we’ve had here in Gloucester, the PF Flyers were out in force on Wednesday, flying at the Seine field in East Gloucester. We had over 20 participants, with more than 15 bringing their own build and or bought machines (most bringing more than one machine). There were tricopters, quadcopters, 3 different kinds of FPV (first person view) systems (these systems give the pilot the feel of actually flying from the cockpit), sail planes, foam planes and even a 3 foot wingspan scale piper cub. I once knew a professional rally car driver, who used to say that when losing control of a car don’t look at a tree that you are scared of hitting, look at the gap between the trees. It was amazing to me how many foam planes crashed into the one tree at Seine field (no trees were harmed) – because the flyers were so focused on missing the tree, the planes seemed to keep going that way!

Not one, but two drones up there!

Not one, but two drones up there!

It has been a real pleasure for all of us here at OA to develop this club. It’s a great feeling, seeing all the kids working together, flying and learning and having fun on a sunny Gloucester evening – who could ask for more? Currently the youngest pilot is an 8 yr old girl and our of respect I will just say that the oldest is many decades older. Last but not least, it was great to have some RC pilots visiting and flying with us from Albuquerque, New Mexico.


As we look to the future of the club our goals include:

-Establishing a permanent residence for the Applied Environmental Robotics Laboratory and Youth Club Program in the (currently being restored) brick buildings at the Paint Factory. We are now at capacity for the club so we need a bigger space.

-Continuing to outfit the program with necessary kits and materials so that kids can join build and learn at no charge.

-Continuing outreach to local youth and K-12 schools.

-Integrating the youth club into real-world applications or making the connection to real-world applications.

If you want more information on the club and/or are interested in supporting this effort with donated time or funds, please contact Iain Kerr at

Bryde’s Amendment: Not What It Seems.

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

A news story has been published widely over the past few weeks, speaking to the proposed protection of a ‘unique’ species of whale in the Gulf of Mexico.

The species in question is the Bryde’s whale (confusingly pronounced ‘broodus’ whale), more specifically, the Gulf of Mexico population of Bryde’s whales. The articles correctly mention that due to a combination of genetic and acoustic data, this population is likely an entirely separate species from other Bryde’s whales.

Followers of Ocean Alliance and Sea Shepherd might also remember that during the 2014 Operation Toxic Gulf, Ocean Alliance and Sea Shepherd collected a biopsy from one of these whales with the hopes of gathering more information on them.

On the surface, this is nothing but wonderful news. The stock assessment for this population is around 33 individuals, making it critically endangered, on the very cusp of extinction. This species, already living in a heavily industrialized body of water, needs all the protection we can afford it.

However, to us at Ocean Alliance, this revelation hides potential sinister undertones. The articles point to this recent proposal being pushed forward after new areas of the Gulf of Mexico, areas constituting critical habitat to these whales, are being opened up to oil drilling. What the articles missed was that the proposed amendment allows the company involved in oil & gas drilling operations to emit an increased amount of greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds. The specific area being opened up is called DeSoto Canyon, a submarine canyon located around 75 miles south of the Florida panhandle.

Why is this worrying? Or perhaps more appropriately, is there a reason this is particularly worrying?

I can assure you that there is. During Operation Toxic Gulf, it was my responsibility as Science Manager, along with Captain Bob Wallace, to collect as much data as we could on offshore gulf whales. This included, but was not limited to, collecting a statistically valid number of tissue samples (50 Sperm whales biopsies). This level of responsibility afforded us the right to decide where we went to search for whales. Almost every single time we left our home port of Pensacola, we headed directly for one place. We would have gone there every time if not for concerns over encountering the same group of whales. Where you ask?

DeSoto Canyon.

Throughout Operation Toxic Gulf we traversed thousands of square kilometres. And consistently, the richest and most bio-diverse place, the place where we were most likely to see not just Sperm whales, but an extraordinary wealth of other species (many endangered) was DeSoto Canyon. This adage held true to the extent that towards the end of the expedition we often made predictions that within 30 minutes of entering the DeSoto Canyon area we would see at least 100 dolphins. This was incredible considering that in our typical research area, spanning a few thousand square kilometres across the Gulf of Mexico, it is very easy to go days without seeing a single dolphin. Without fail, our predictions regarding the dolphins would be proven right, their presence first made known acoustically as an almost inexplicable blend of whistles, clicks, squeaks and groans poured into the pilot house through the hydrophone trailing behind the boat.

A look over our data shows that we recorded 9 different species of marine mammal in the DeSoto Canyon area. This amounts to almost half the marine mammal species to be found in the entire Gulf of Mexico. All of which were encountered in such a relatively small area, during an accumulated period of time spanning less than a week. To us DeSoto Canyon represented the richest and most biodiverse region in the northern Gulf of Mexico. This is by no means an authoritative, official statement, but one borne out of many thousands of hours spent collecting environmental and biological data in the northern Gulf. This year our CEO has had meetings with both the Marine Mammal Commission and BOEM – at both meetings he proposed that critical or designated hotspots for marine mammals be created in the Gulf of Mexico and the poster child for such a critical habitat should be the DeSoto canyon.

Certainly, we can point to the fact that this proposed amendment to drilling in the area has offered special protection to this population of Bryde’s whales as a major positive. However, personally I see this a rather moot point. If legislation is passed through declaring this stock a separate species (an outcome likely if the genetic data is to be used), then this will be the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. It should not need its critical habitat being opened up for drilling to afford it special protection! A population comprising of around 33 animals should have it anyway!

I perhaps have more faith than most in the ability of environmental law makers and government organisations to protect regions of particular environmental importance. Certainly, a delicate balancing act is involved. The economic riches to be had from fuelling our thirst for hydrocarbons is an intense pressure. But in a changing world, where the footprint of man is becoming increasingly intense, places of significant biodiversity must be protected. This is particularly crucial in an already heavily industrialised body of water, and one which has recently seen one of the worst environmental disasters in human history.

In my opinion this represents a stark, and incredibly disappointing, failure on their behalf.

– Andy Rogan, Ocean Alliance Science Manager